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Flashbacks on Triangle Fires and Rana Plaza

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No one who has taken a course in Women's History is unfamiliar with the with 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. During the turn of the last century, many immigrant women considered themselves fortunate to work in one of over 450 textile factories in Manhattan. It took the Triangle Factory Fire, however, to focus the nation's attention upon garment workers' unsafe workplace conditions.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 caused onlookers to gasp in horror as approximately 146 workers jumped to their deaths, or were trapped in locked down upper floors that became engulfed in flames. Clara Lemlich, of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), argued for better pay and working conditions. Francis Perkins headed the New York Committee on Public Safety, and as the first female Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote the laws providing for minimum wage and Social Security. This also gave rise to the founding of the American Association of Safety Engineers.

Small wonder that labor union activists are comparing 2012 & 2013 textile factory fires in Karachi, Pakistan and Dhaka, Bangladesh which have killed scores of workers to the Triangle Factory Fire. According to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, these were preventable sweatshop factory tragedies. Hundreds of trapped women and children, dazed from overwork, died from suffocation and burns, deprived of even the opportunity to flee their work floor.

Once again, it underscores the critical need for adequate inspections of facilities, and oversight of equipment, health, labor, and safety by the Bangladeshi government--with the unqualified support of the brand name merchants.

Thanks to intrepid investigative press coverage by reporters at the Toronto Star and Al Jazeera, and non-governmental reports such as by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, public pressure has mounted and forced minimal improvements. However, this came too late for the 1133 garment workers, many women and children, killed in April 2013 following the Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka.

The most obvious improvements appear to be recent offers for higher wages by a small percentage of the estimated 4500 official factories, although lower than what had been pushed for by workers. Earlier this year in June, President Obama did announce he would suspend Bangladesh's duty-free export privileges; however, since the garment industry is not duty-free, this move is largely symbolic.

Workers compensation for (wrongful) factory deaths remains under compensated, if at all. The International Labor Organization (ILO), supported by IndustriALL and by UNI Global Union, are convening compensation negotiations, offering skills training, and promoting the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Signing the Accord was also promoted by 123 responsible investors "representing more than $1.2trn (€933m) in assets under management" who signed an Investor Statement on Bangladesh.

So far, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aka. Bangladesh Accord has been signed by over 100 apparel corporations, but multinationals such as Gap, and Walmart have worked to distance themselves from its former subcontractors, while putting forth their own Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

The Alliance, which includes global retailers such as Macy's, Costco, Sears, Target, Kohl's, J.C. Penney, and even L.L. Bean, according to non-governmental trade organizations, is a step in the right direction. However, compliance is merely voluntary or legally non-binding when compared with the Accord. Furthermore, giant corporation Walmart, whose clothing labels were found at the Tazreen Fashions factory fire and amid the rubble from the Rana Plaza building collapse, has only sought subterfuges in distancing itself from its subcontractors, absolving itself of any kind of legal and especially financial responsibility.

Instead of addressing the immediate concerns of victims' families and injured survivors, Walmart's response has been evasive, such as offering to "launch a safety training academy" and establishing a safety fund for low cost loans--something which few factory owners have heard much about so far.

In contrast, the New York Times reported that among Accord signatories:

A handful of retailers...are deeply involved in getting long-term compensation funds off the ground, one for Rana Plaza’s victims and one for the victims of the Tazreen fire, which killed 112 workers last Nov. 24.

Compensation by these more noble enterprises have included payout of salaries for victims, factory repairs, and the establishment of a long-term compensation fund for Rana victims and their families which would allow for medical care, survival, counseling, retraining, and education.

So far, Walmart's response has been that since subcontractors producing readymade garments (RMG) at Tazreen and Rana were unauthorized, it would not pay any compensation.

This argument against monetary support to victims of safety, labor, and health violations doesn't bode well with watchdog organizations because it flies in the face of a long record of noncompliance. For instance, according to reports by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, not much has changed over the past decade or so. Whether it's unsafe or unhealthy work conditions, cheating on overtime pay, abuse of workers, child labor, or slumlord housing, textile workers in developing countries are often told they must "see nothing, know nothing, do nothing."

According to Human Rights Watch, in June 2012 there were only 18 inspectors tasked with monitoring Dhaka's 100,000 factories that employ over 3 million textile and tannery workers. Often, any fines have been minimal, so factory owners pay the fines rather than incorporate called-for improvements. To make matters worse, in various countries, would-be union organizers have been beaten, tortured, and murdered. For instance, leaders from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), an organization of labor rights advocates, were harassed and jailed.

The role of the Bangladesh government has been one of siding with factory owners, many of whom are active political party or parliament members. For example, the recent minimum wage increases came with warnings from the Labour secretary of "conspiracies at home and abroad against the garment industry."

According to Aruna Kashyap in "Bangladesh: The Three Exclusions," poverty and human rights abuses could be alleviated if the World Bank more deeply considered the lifestyles of women, children, and people with disabilities. Instead, contracts with local leather tanneries allow them to refuse to even consider treating its effluent before dumping their toxic chemical wastes into the Buriganga River, a river from which Dhakar's residents draws water and life-sustenance.

What happens abroad will influence America's own ongoing race to the bottom, about which Maine historian Neil Rolde comments: "Some very wealthy people would welcome a return to Bangladeshi ways of treating employees."

To take some action on this issue consider supporting Bangladesh Accord signatories; avoid Bangladesh Alliance brand names. Join the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, and Worker Rights Consortium. Take immediate action by signing the "Support Fair Labour" petition by Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

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