Nearly 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have been burned to death in preventable fires in the last five years. Among the worst industrial disasters there in recent years: 84 garment workers — mostly young girls — died in a blaze inside a locked factory in February of 2006. Twenty-one people died at a factory that supplied orders for H&M in February of 2010. (The same factory had had a deadly blaze the previous October. Yet another fire broke out the following April.) Smaller, less deadly fires happen even more regularly.
The rag trade is Bangladesh's single largest industry, accounting for over 80% of the country's exports. Bangladesh has one of the lowest minimum wages for garment workers in the world: $43 per month, or around 21 cents an hour.
But one particularly notorious fire seems to have had an unusual impact: it has actually led to the creation of new fire-safety standards. Perhaps that's because of the number of U.S. brands involved, and perhaps because of some dogged reporting by ABC.
Electrical wiring overloaded by sewing equipment is believed to have sparked the flames in the high-rise building. Dozens of workers, breaking for lunch at a make-shift canteen on the roof, were unable to descend smoke-filled stairwells and were trapped far out of reach of ladder trucks. The building, like most factories in Bangladesh, lacked fire escapes, sprinklers, and other modern safety equipment. As the flames intensified — fueled by piles of clothes and fabric — workers trying to flee said they found at least one of the factory's gates padlocked. Several were forced to fashion ropes from rolls of fabric to attempt to scale down the side of the building.
Twenty-nine people perished in the blaze. Dozens more were injured while trying to escape.
Labor rights groups report that while the brands that source from the factory were initially eager to address the failures that led to the disaster, as the initial flurry of media coverage of the fire faded, companies lost interest. The brands involved did agree to contribute $37,500 each to a fund for victims' relatives. Apparently these days $37,500 is the cost of 29 human lives.
In the meantime, more Bangladeshi workers were dying as they made clothes for PVH and other popular American brands. In one incident, a worker died when an elevator cable snapped. In another, at a plant known as the Eurotex factory, smoke from a boiler explosion led a panicked group of workers to flood to the factory exits. Workers say they found the exit gated and padlocked. Two workers were trampled to death. Weeks before the boiler blew, a German garment company pulled out of Eurotex, stating in a letter obtained by ABC News that "the state of the building is unacceptable with a high risk involved for all those working there." Hilfiger clothes continued to be made there, a decision PVH says was made by another factory that needed short-term help to meet Hilfiger's holiday rush. [...]
"Just in recent weeks, three workers were killed at two separate factories producing clothing for Tommy Hilfiger," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, one of several labor groups that has been pushing for higher safety standards in Bangladesh. "They say they're trying to improve conditions. They say they care about the rights of workers. They say they're committed to preventing fires and other tragedies in places like Bangladesh. But when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they don't do it."
After ABC asked Tommy Hilfiger one question about the factory fire, following his New York fashion week show last month, the designer responded, "I can tell you that we no longer make clothes in those factories," Hilfiger said. "We pulled out of all of those factories." That wasn't true; Hilfiger's company continued to source clothing from two of the three factories where workers had lost their lives. Then the designer's security team removed ABC from the premises.
Eventually, however, it seems Hilfiger had a change of heart. The company negotiated an agreement with Bangladeshi labor-rights groups to create safety standards for its suppliers — and to fund an independent inspector to both design the standards and audit the factories for compliance. PVH, Tommy Hilfiger's parent company, has committed $1-$2 million to the program, and negotiations to get Gap to sign on to the same agreement are ongoing. Kohl's says it is having "discussions" about the agreement.
Nova, the labor leader, actually sounds hopeful about the new agreement, which he says is "not another voluntary, non-binding, set of unenforceable corporate promises — it is a binding, enforceable agreement under which the participating brands must open up their factories in Bangladesh to public scrutiny and must make these factories safe."