Medlar Apparels and VF’s Policy on Workers as Fire Fighters

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:July 24, 2014
Re:Medlar Apparels and VF’s Policy on Workers as Fire Fighters

The WRC has recently received requests for information from a number of affiliates concerning the fire at the factory known as Medlar Apparels, a supplier of non-collegiate apparel to VF Corporation. I write to share with you the information we have about the case and to note, in particular, our concern over VF’s position concerning the role of workers in attempting to fight fires.

Please note that the WRC did not previously report on the Medlar fire because this is not a collegiate factory and there were, fortunately, no fatalities. However, this fire has become a concern to the university community, as there have been different perspectives presented to universities by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and VF Corporation, and we want to provide you with the best available information.

Facts on the Fire and Worker Injuries

Medlar is a garment factory located in an area known as Ashulia. It is owned by one of the largest garment exporters in Bangladesh, Sinha Group. Medlar employs roughly 4,000 workers.

USAS is correct in stating that VF has produced at Medlar for a number of years; U.S. Customs records show orders as far back as 2007, with substantial shipments to VF in recent years. VF reports that it is the second largest buyer at the factory.

Like most garment factories in Bangladesh, Medlar does not have fire doors, enclosed stairwells or other elements of an adequate and lawful fire exit system. Some of the stairwells at Medlar also do not feed outside the building, but rather open onto the interior of the ground floor, requiring workers using those stairwells to cross through the building in order to escape. This is a particular dangerous structural flaw. These deficiencies place workers at grave risk of injury or death in the event of any fire.

The fire at Medlar broke out on June 20. It was electrical in origin; ignition was the result of faulty electrical components. The fire was substantial and forced a complete evacuation of the facility.

As best the WRC can determine, the total number of injured workers was lower than the number (fifty) reported by local media and cited by USAS in its original communication. The correct number is closer to the figure cited by VF (eleven) in its letter to USAS.

As to the cause and severity of the injuries incurred, some of the information provided by VF is incorrect. While VF reports that no workers were injured in the process of evacuation, there were in fact several workers injured during the escape. VF is also incorrect in stating that none of the injuries were serious or required hospitalization and that all workers were treated and swiftly released. The WRC has identified two workers whose injuries were severe enough to require admission to local hospitals for periods of at least five days.

In sum, this was a serious fire, resulting from faulty electrical systems. It caused significant injuries to workers, in part as the result of a rushed and disorderly evacuation, likely exacerbated by the building’s structural flaws and by inadequate training and fire safety procedures.

The event constitutes a basis for concern about VF’s approach to these issues.

First, VF has been at Medlar since 2007. If, as VF has asserted, it has a long-standing commitment to worker safety, then at some point in the last seven years it should have taken action to address the lack of fire exits and other serious safety hazards at the factory. It is true that many other brands and retailers have similarly failed to address severe dangers in their supplier factories in Bangladesh. However, the majority of those companies have now signed the Bangladesh Accord, under which they are obligated to take a very different approach to these issues. VF has declined to sign the Accord and argues instead that the promises it has made through the Alliance, which are unenforceable by worker representatives (and unenforceable by universities), are sufficient. Brands like VF that produced in dangerous factories for years without taking action to protect workers are no longer in a position to argue that their business partners should be satisfied with unenforceable promises to do better.

Workers Should Not be Asked to Risk Their Lives Fighting Fires

There is a second concern about VF’s worker safety practices to which the Medlar fire gives rise. VF makes very disturbing statements in its letter to USAS concerning the role of workers in fighting factory fires. These statements indicate an irresponsible and dangerous approach to the issue.

Except in the very early stage of a fire – when it has not spread and can be quickly doused with a fire extinguisher – it is not appropriate for factory workers to act as fire fighters. The only exception to this rule is when workers have extensive professional training and access to the type of equipment used by professional fire fighters (including self-contained breathing apparatuses). Workers at garment factories in Bangladesh do not have this level of training or equipment. That includes Medlar.

An example of how dangerous it is to ask workers to fight fires was the conflagration at Aswad Composite Mills in Bangladesh last October. Seven employees lost their lives at Aswad. All of them died because they were trying to fight the fire.

This is why it is cause for major concern that workers at Medlar were involved in fighting the fire on June 20. A substantial number suffered significant injuries in the process.

What is especially disturbing is VF’s position on this question. As you will see in VF’s letter, the company acknowledges that employees were involved in fighting the fire and acknowledges that they were injured in the process. Yet, instead of questioning the policies and practices of Medlar management that led to workers being put in harm’s way, VF appears to celebrate the fact that workers were inside the building fighting the fire, congratulating workers on their “courageous” response.

The workers at Aswad were also, no doubt, courageous. Courage is not the issue. As a fundamental matter of fire safety, factory managers should not be putting workers at risk of injury or death by asking them to play the role of fire fighters. VF does not appear to understand this.

We will address this issue with VF and advise you as to their response.

As always, please let us know if you need additional information or would like to discuss this issue further.

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]