Saturday’s Devastating Factory Fire in Bangladesh and the Urgent Need for Reform

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:November 30, 2012
Re:Saturday’s Devastating Factory Fire in Bangladesh and the Urgent Need for Reform

As you are likely aware from media coverage, another horrific fire struck the world’s apparel workers last Saturday, killing at least 111 people at a factory in Bangladesh. The workers were on an overtime shift when the fire broke out. Some workers burned to death, others died of smoke inhalation, and others died leaping from the upper floors of the factory to escape the smoke and flames.

This horror makes clear, more powerfully than ever, the need for urgent reform of workplace safety practices in Bangladesh, a country that is now the world’s second largest apparel producer, after China, and one of the primary producers of university logo apparel.

The factory, called Tazreen Fashions, was producing goods for Walmart, Sears/Kmart, Disney, the Belgian retailer C&A, Sean Comb’s ENYCE clothing line, Li & Fung, and a number of other US and European brands and retailers. There was one university licensee identified as a customer of this factory: MJ Soffe. The factory was not disclosed by MJ Soffe as a producer of collegiate goods. However, we have asked MJ Soffe to inform us as to which products they were making at this facility and we are awaiting a reply.

The deaths in this fire were the result of deficiencies that are typical of factories in Bangladesh: a substandard electrical wiring system that local fire officials identified as the likely cause of the fire, the lack of functioning fire exits, the lack of sprinklers, the lack of an emergency lighting system, and a management that behaved deplorably once the fire broke out – with survivors reporting that managers, apparently believing the fire would be controlled, telling workers to stay at their machines rather than evacuate and locking doors to prevent workers’ egress.

It is sobering to consider that this factory, which was operating in a grossly unsafe manner, was able to produce goods for years for some of the world’s leading brands and retailers without ever being compelled to make basic safety improvements. The same was true of the factory in Pakistan that burned in September, killing 289 people, who could not escape because all of the exits were locked but one. Both factories were repeatedly subject to audits by buyers that are ostensibly committed to effective factory monitoring. The Pakistan factory was audited, on behalf of the massive German retailer KiK, by UL Responsible Sourcing, a leading auditing firm accredited by WRAP and the FLA. That factory had also received, just weeks before the fire, certification as a responsible and safe employer under the SA-8000 auditing system overseen by Social Accountability International. The Tazreen factory was audited multiple times by Walmart and, it is virtually certain, by other large buyers, including Li & Fung and C&A. According to documents published by the factory, the Walmart audits identified serious problems, which are unspecified in the posted documents, but the Walmart audit process clearly never led to any fire safety improvements. Instead, both the Pakistan factory and Tazreen Fashions were able to churn out clothes for major US and European brands for years, despite grave deficiencies that eventually led to disaster.

It has been disturbing, in the wake of the Tazreen fire, to see major buyers attempting to distance themselves from responsibility by claiming that they were unaware that their goods were being produced at the factory. This is especially problematic coming from Walmart, since there is no question that Walmart was using the factory, of its own volition, in 2011.  After the fire, however, Walmart claimed that it had stopped sourcing from Tazreen, at some unidentified point in time, and that a local supplier, also unidentified, then continued sourcing there on Walmart’s behalf without the company’s knowledge. Walmart has refused to supply any documentation to substantiate the claim that it ever made a decision to stop sourcing from Tazreen and has refused to answer any questions on the matter from the news media and labor rights groups. Indeed, Walmart announced that it will have no comment whatsoever on the issue beyond a five-sentence statement it issued on Tuesday. Walmart has not offered any aid to the families of those who died.

As you know, the WRC has been advocating, along with labor rights groups around the world, a comprehensive set of fire safety reforms in Bangladesh and has been asking major brands and retailers to commit to implement these reforms. In March of this year, PVH Corp., the company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which embodies the proposed reform measures. In signing the Agreement, PVH made a binding, contractually enforceable, commitment to do the following:

  • Require all of its supplier factories in Bangladesh to submit to rigorous fire safety inspections led by recognized, independent fire safety experts 
  • Accept public disclosure of all inspection reports 
  • Require all suppliers to implement all repairs and renovations necessary to make their factories safe, as determined through the inspection process 
  • Pay suppliers prices sufficient to make it possible for them to afford the necessary repairs and renovations and to operate in a safe manner 
  • Require suppliers to allow worker representatives into their factories to educate workers about workplace safety and worker rights 
  • Cease doing business with any supplier that fails to comply with any of the above 

These reforms are designed to transcend the dynamics that are perpetuating and exacerbating the dangerous situation in Bangladesh: 1) weak, non-transparent factory monitoring and 2) tremendous downward price pressure from buyers that gives factories powerful incentive to ignore worker rights and worker safety. Bangladesh attained its status as the second largest apparel producer in the world by offering rock-bottom labor costs to brands and retailers — and the brands and retailers, while officially asking suppliers to respect worker rights and safety, continue to pay prices to factories that are too low to enable them to do so. If this does not change, more fires and more deaths are inevitable. Indeed, we believe that the majority of factories in Bangladesh have some or all of the same fire safety deficiencies as Tazreen Fashions. Walmart itself stated at a meeting that I attended in Bangladesh last year that extensive modifications would be needed at most of the country’s 4,500 factories to make them safe, though Walmart indicated, in the same statement, that it would not agree to bear any of the costs. No program will succeed in averting further disasters unless it calls for financial support from buyers to enable factories to make repairs – combined with a binding obligation on the part of buyers to stop business with factories that refuse to achieve and maintain safe operations.

The Agreement signed in March by PVH was joined in August by Tchibo, one of the largest clothing retailers in Germany. However, because it is essential to achieve powerful leverage over the industry in Bangladesh for the program to work, it cannot proceed until more brands and retailers sign on. A major focus of the efforts of the WRC and other labor rights groups has been Gap. Gap is one of the largest buyers in Bangladesh. Gap was also the biggest customer of That’s It Sportswear, the factory in Bangladesh that burned in December of 2010, killing 29 workers and injuring many more. Unfortunately, despite the obvious dangers in the company’s Bangladesh supply chain, and despite extensive and protracted negotiations with labor rights groups, Gap has proven unwilling to make the commitments PVH and Tchibo have made. Instead, Gap has announced a unilateral and far weaker program that will not serve to protect the workers who make its clothes. We hope that this will change.

Once a sufficient number of major brands and retailers have signed on to the program to enable its implementation, the WRC will seek the participation of all university licensees sourcing from Bangladesh. In the meantime, the WRC continues to advise university licensees to exert all possible vigilance concerning the safety practices of their suppliers in Bangladesh, as well as Pakistan.

We will update you on these issues as developments warrant. Please note that the text of the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement is available if you would like to review it.

Below are links to several news stories and commentaries that may be of interest.

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


Fire Kills 112 Workers Making Clothes for US Brands – ABC News

Another Deadly Fire, Another Alarm for Bangladesh – New York Times

Deadly Fire in Bangladesh – New York Times (photo essay)

Brand Names and Mass Graves – Chicago Tribune–tms–rkoehlerctnbk-a20121129-20121129,0,933935.column

For Wal-Mart, Sears, Tough Questions in Bangladesh Fire – Wall Street Journal