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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Apparel Companies Knew About Factory Fire Hazards

Hundreds of Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires and building collapses in the last two decades, and many have been injured. Just last month, 112 workers died in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. A report by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) cites "twin obstacles" to making garments factories in Bangladesh safe for workers: workers are not being heard, and companies do not openly talk about what they know is going on inside the factories. Titled Deadly Secrets, the report exposes how apparel companies know about the fire hazards in garment factories, but do not publicly disclose the risk, putting workers in jeopardy.

Brands and retailers "collectively possess thousands of confidential factory audits that may reveal workplace hazards and even imminent threats to workers’ health and safety," the report states. The brands and retailers, according to the report, seem to "have chosen to cease business with factories to safeguard their reputations and brand images rather than reveal their deadly secrets and tell workers about the risks they face."

"The report calls for a new openness in the garment industry, where companies share what they know about dangerous workplaces and workers can speak up and organize to protect themselves," said Bjorn Claeson, author of the report.

The report labels Bangladeshi garment workers the "lowest paid garment workers anywhere in the world." Over the past two decades, U.S. and European corporate investment in Bangladesh's garment industry has "grown steadily despite widespread unsafe workplaces." Bangladesh is now the number two garment exporter in the world, second only to China. Analysts expect Bangladesh to triple garment exports over the next decade, and possibly even beat China.

Bangladesh is not the only problem. A factory fire on September 11, 2012 in Pakistan killed 259 workers who were trapped inside. The same day, a shoe factory fire in Pakistan killed 35 workers. Textile and clothing exports total 58 percent of the country's exports. There have been at least a dozen garment or shoe factory fires in Pakistan reported by the media since 2004. The day after the September 11th fire, a fire in a sweatshop in Moscow killed 14 Vietnamese immigrants who were trapped.

"Consumers, apparel brands and retailers, governments, and everyone else who has a stake in the global apparel industry must now accept and confront another deadly secret," the report declares.

Companies on one hand call for workers to be paid higher wage, but on the other hand want lower prices, the report points out. Describing it as the "contradiction between their purchasing strategy and their worker rights demands," the report makes the following recommendations to companies:

  1. Reject the contradictory demands of cheap and ethical garments because "low prices require low wages and usually preempt adequate investments in health and safety." The demands for low prices "increase the risks to worker safety."

  2. Sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement to accept legal responsibility for workers' safety.

Whether apparel companies will listen to the ILRF remains to be seen. Hopefully, they will be able to put people above profit and do what is right for garments workers who toil in factories making clothes that we all wear.

Image credit: International Labor Rights Forum

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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