Workers Burned Alive Making Luxury Clothes for US Brands

DSCN5372UPDATE: After 28 workers were burned to death at an unsafe clothing factory in Bangladesh, treat tens of thousands of us called on companies buying from the factory to take responsibility. GAP Inc, the largest US clothing retailer, has given in! One down, six more to go…

They work in almost slave-like conditions making luxury clothes for Americans. They are generally young, poor and female. Two days ago, more than two dozen of them were burned alive when an easily preventable fire broke out in the unsafe, multi-story sweatshop they were working in.

Who did these Bangladeshi workers die for? Surely a shady company making clothes for the Bangladeshi poor?

Nope. These laborers make clothes for GAP Inc., Wrangler jeans, JC Penney, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch and Osh Kosh B’Gosh.

Worse, this incident is not the first of it’s kind, and is the second time this year that more than 20 workers at a clothing factory in Bangladesh were burned to death.

The tragedy began when a fire broke out on the ninth and 10th floors of the multi-story ‘That’s It Sportswear” clothing factory in the Ashulia industrial park just north the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on Tuesday. Eyewitnesses told labor rights activists that two of the six exits were locked. 28 workers were killed: most burned to death, some trampled to death, some killed by suffocation and others jumped from the flames to their death. Several dozen more suffered severe burns.

The factory is owned by the Hameem group, the fifth largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh, and employs some 10,000 people making pants. The Hameem group also sells to H&M, Walmart, Kohl’s, Sears, Next and many more brands.

Fires are common in clothing factories, which often have large, highly-flammable piles of clothes. Exits are also often locked by factory owners to prevent workers from taking breaks.

Tuesday’s fire is the latest in a series of deadly incidents in clothing factories in Bangladesh, which has been bringing in more US and European business as the cost of labor in China rises. It also came just days after deadly protests over clothing manufacturers’ failure to implement a government-mandated 80 percent increase in the minimum wage to 3,000 taka a month (about $42). That’s right folks, the workers who were burned alive were likely being paid some $24 a month, less than $1 a day.

A major embarrassment to both the company and government, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has pledged to pay the families of those killed on Tuesday 100,000 taka (about $1,400). The company, Hameem Group, has pledged to double that amount.

But that’s not enough for labor rights organizations, who have rightly argued that the incident underscores a pattern of multinational clothing retailers ignoring the need for better health and safety regulations at their Asian factories, while refusing to allow the workers in those factories to organize should fair work conditions not be provided.

Tuesday’s tragedy is particularly bitter as labor rights activists have long called on US brands to pressure their Asian manufacturers to improve safety conditions at multi-story factories. Indeed this past April groups like the Maquila Solidarity Network and the Clean Cloths Campaign specifically called on major clothing brands to thoroughly review safety standards in multi-story factories.

“Labor rights organizations have pleaded for years with US and European clothing brands to take aggressive steps to address the grossly substandard fire and building safety practices of their business partners in Bangladesh,” said Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium in a statement. “The brands have failed to act and, once again, we see the gruesome consequences of this inaction.”

How many times in one year do workers have to die before GAP, Wrangler jeans, JC Penney, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch and Osh Kosh B’Gosh begin to take worker safety seriously?

These are principally American companies accountable to American consumers. It’s time to show them that US consumers will demand a serious, severe response to incidents like this.

Joint a large consortium of Bangladeshi and international groups calling on all companies sourcing from the “That’s It Sportswear factory to provide just compensation to the victims and their families and launch thorough, independent safety inspections of all multi-story factories.

Winning this and similar campaigns depends on our ability to quickly call on thousands of supportive folks like you. After signing the petition below, please click here to help us win!

Photo credit: ttarasiuk