February 17, 2020

Justice Still Elusive in Factory Disasters in Bangladesh

Perhaps that is because the man, Delowar Hossain, has not yet been charged with anything — and may never be. He has been a vilified figure since his garment factory, Tazreen Fashions, caught fire last November, killing 112 workers who were making clothes for retailers like Walmart and Sears. A high-level government investigation found fire safety violations and accused Mr. Hossain of “unpardonable negligence.”

“How do you sleep at night?” a woman screamed as Mr. Hossain left the courtroom after the hearing on June 19. The more pertinent question might be this: In Bangladesh, where the garment industry powers the economy and wields enormous political clout, is it possible to hold factory owners like Mr. Hossain accountable?

Now is undeniably the test. The Tazreen Fashions fire was followed by the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in which 1,129 people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. A global supply chain that delivers low-cost clothes from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West was suddenly redefined by images of mutilated bodies pulled from the rubble. The Obama administration responded last week by rescinding a special trade privilege for Bangladesh over concerns about safety problems and labor rights violations in its garment industry.

But Bangladeshi factories have always suffered fires and accidents, usually without attracting international attention. One study estimated that more than 1,000 workers died in hundreds of factory fires or accidents from 1990 to 2012. Not once was a factory owner charged with any crime, activists say.

“We want to set a legal precedent that factory owners can’t get away with this,” said Saydia Gulrukh, an anthropologist and social activist.

One way to interpret the hearing for Mr. Hossain was as an act of exasperation. It was not a criminal trial. Instead, Ms. Gulrukh and a handful of other activists and lawyers had become so frustrated that they petitioned the Bangladesh High Court to overstep the stalled police investigation and decide whether criminal charges should be filed. The proceeding is already bogged down and could take months, or longer.

“They are just delaying the process,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, the lawyer handling the petition, speaking of Mr. Hossain’s defense team. “They think we will lose the spirit of fighting. But they have miscalculated.”

Bangladesh’s legal system has rarely favored anyone confronting the power structure. Much of the legal code has remained intact since the British imperial era, when laws were devised to control the population and protect the colonialist power structure. Legal reformers continue to push to modernize the criminal code, but the pace of change has been slow. Moreover, the police and other security forces are deeply politicized, with a bloody legacy of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Many garment factory owners are now entrenched in the nation’s power elite, some as members of Parliament. Garments represent 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing exports, giving the industry vast economic power, while factory owners also finance campaigns during national elections, giving them broad political influence.

The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, seemed to shock a system often inured to factory accidents. On the morning of the collapse, factory workers had been ordered into the building, even though cracks had appeared a day earlier and an engineer had warned that the structure was unsafe. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, disappeared amid speculation that he would avoid prosecution because he was affiliated with the governing political coalition, the Awami League.

But incensed High Court judges ordered the police to arrest Mr. Rana, as well as the owners of the garment factories inside the building. Mr. Rana was hauled into the courthouse, along with the factory bosses, surprising some legal activists who could not remember a single case in which judges had taken such action against members of the garment industry.

“That was very unusual,” said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer and legal activist, who is not related to Delowar Hossain. “I think it was only possible because of the level of national and international outrage.”

Ms. Hossain has fought the garment industry for years over the 2005 collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory in Savar, in which at least 64 workers died. Soon after the collapse, she and other lawyers petitioned the court and pressed for affidavits from different agencies to determine who was to blame, in hopes of stirring a prosecution.

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/world/asia/justice-elusive-in-a-bangladesh-factory-disaster.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bangladesh’s Cabinet Approves Changes to Labor Laws

The new initiatives are partly in response to outrage over conditions in the country’s garment sector after the April 24 collapse of a garment-factory building, Rana Plaza, in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the nation’s capital. By Monday afternoon, at least 1,127 people were confirmed to have died in the Rana Plaza collapse, a number that could still rise, in what is now considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.

A top adviser to Bangladesh’s prime minister, Gowher Rizvi, said the changes approved by the cabinet – which must still be approved by the country’s Parliament – are part of a broader government effort to come into compliance with international labor standards and improve conditions for workers in an industry that is critical to the nation’s economy.

“Worker safety and worker welfare have now been brought into the forefront,” Mr. Rizvi said in a telephone interview. He said that discussions on these changes predated the Rana Plaza collapse even as he agreed that the disaster had intensified the pressure for reforms.

“This is the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said of the garment industry’s importance to Bangladesh. “Don’t kill it. We have to strengthen it. We have to nurture it. Nurturing it means fair treatment of the workers.”

Bangladesh is now the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China, and has become a popular manufacturer for top global brands by delivering lower costs, largely because of rock-bottom wages. Minimum wage in the garment industry is $37 a month. Labor unions are largely absent in garment factories, partly because of legal restrictions on organizing. In some cases, workers trying to organize unions have faced dismissals from factory bosses, as well as intimidation and harassment from local officials.

Mikail Shipar, the country’s labor secretary, said Monday’s changes included eliminating a central restriction on union organizing and improving benefits for workers. Under the current rules, organizers must present the government with a list of names showing that at least 30 percent of workers in a factory want a union. But that list is then turned over to a factory’s owner to verify the authenticity of the names – a step that some owners have used to engage in union busting by firing or harassing workers on the list.

Now, Mr. Shipar said the list would no longer be turned over to factory owners.

“This is a major barrier in getting registration of a trade union in a factory,” he said. “Through the proposed amendment of the labor law, we removed this barrier.”

Other changes involve benefits. Severance payments will be increased for workers with longer tenures at factories; annual payments under a welfare fund will be equalized so that every garment worker, regardless of the size of their factory, will receive the same amount. Factories will be pushed to modernize management practices and provide workers with banking accounts and direct deposit to protect against abuses by lower-level managers, like withholding or delaying wages.

Government officials on Sunday announced the creation of a new wage board that would begin discussions between labor and management on setting a new minimum wage for garment workers. Mr. Shipar said the process might take up to six months, but officials have said that any wage changes would be retroactive to May 1.

Bangladesh has roughly 5,000 garment factories, employing directly and indirectly more than 4.5 million people. Nearly 80 percent of garment workers are women, many of them poorly educated and from rural villages. In the past, even the low local wages were better than working in the fields. But as inflation has spiked in the past two years, garment workers have staged angry protests, demanding higher wages and better conditions.

Mr. Rizvi, the government adviser, said the move by the cabinet on Monday is part of a broader effort to bring Bangladesh into compliance with minimum labor standards established by the International Labor Organization. This month, a high-level delegation from the organization met in Dhaka with factory owners, government officials and labor leaders and issued a joint statement pledging to introduce a labor law reform package in Parliament; to assess the structural integrity and fire safety of all factories in 2013; and hire an additional 200 government inspectors to regulate the industry.

Julifkar Ali Manik contributed from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/world/middleeast/bangladeshs-cabinet-approves-changes-to-labor-laws.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bangladesh Factory, Site of Fatal Fire, Made Western Brands

The blaze at the Smart Export Garments factory, which erupted Saturday afternoon in a densely populated area of Dhaka, the capital, is the latest tragedy for a Bangladeshi garment industry that is now the world’s second-biggest clothing exporter, trailing only China. Two months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers, where jeans, lingerie and sweaters were made for retailers like Walmart and Sears.

International labor advocates, who have been pressing global brands and retailers to help pay to upgrade fire-safety measures in Bangladeshi factories, said the latest fire was a grim reminder of how conditions must be improved to ensure the safety of workers who are paid as little as $37 a month to make clothing for Western retailers and consumers. Just since November, advocates say, Bangladesh has also experienced 18 other nonfatal factory fires.

“After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, in a statement.

On Sunday, labels from several French brands, including Sol’s, Scott and Fox and G Blog by Gemo could be seen in the burned second-floor Smart Export Garments factory. Two other labels manufactured for Inditex, the world’s largest fashion group, were also visible — Leftie’s and Bershka. Labor activists found labels for the German low-cost brand KIK and a purchase order by a New York firm, M. Hidary Company, for Hawaiian Authentics swimwear.

Inditex, a conglomerate that operates more than 5,000 stores worldwide, is perhaps best known for the popular Spanish brand Zara. Company executives in Spain could not be reached for comment on Sunday. But a Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, quoted an unnamed local representative for the company as saying that Inditex was unaware that the Smart Export factory was making its goods.

“We are now sifting through the purchase order documents to know who were given the work orders and how Smart Export Garment Ltd. got the orders under subcontract,” the unnamed company official told The Daily Star. “The actual receivers of purchase orders have given the work orders to Smart Export Garment in a sneaky way without informing the buyer.”

Global brands have promised Western consumers that clothes are manufactured in safe factories that are inspected through regular audits, often conducted by third-party auditing firms. But the fire at the Smart Export Garments factory has again exposed loopholes in that system: the factory was filling many orders on subcontracts with other suppliers for global brands. It was unclear whether the factory had ever been audited.

The Bangladeshi authorities have confirmed that the building was illegally constructed and lacked proper fire-safety measures, including extinguishers and emergency exits. More than 300 workers were inside the factory when the fire erupted Saturday. Most of the workers were young seamstresses who panicked after discovering that one exit was blocked by a locked metal gate. Some jumped from windows to escape.

“We are sure that this factory doesn’t have a fire license, and they never applied for one,” said Mamun Mahmud, a fire official who is part of a special committee investigating the blaze. He noted that a fire safety license was mandatory for all garment factories in Bangladesh.

Moreover, the factory was apparently hiring teenagers. In Bangladesh, labor laws allow teenagers as young as 14 to work in nonhazardous jobs. The legal age to work in a garment factory is a bit unclear. Mr. Mahmud, the fire official, said garment factories were not supposed to hire anyone younger than 18; others say the age limit is 16. Several of the fire victims were 16 or 17, according to their families, while labor groups say one victim was only 15.

Moyna Akter, 20, had worked in the factory for two months before quitting. But her younger sister, Kohinur, kept working, as a helper, earning as little as $30 a month. She died in the fire.

“I will not work anymore for any garment factory,” Moyna Akter said.

Several workers remain hospitalized with injuries from the fire, including at least one in critical condition. Yet local labor advocates say that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a powerful industry trade group, has refused to provide assistance to the injured, since the burned factory was not a member of the group.

One of the injured workers, Samsur Nahar, is said to be unconscious and suffering seizures at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Family members say she is being kept in a ward so crowded that she does not have a bed.

Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, and Jim Yardley from New Delhi.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/world/asia/bangladesh-factory-site-of-fatal-fire-made-western-brands.html?partner=rss&emc=rss