I am morally outraged. The fire that occurred in the Tazreen Fashions Garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, last Saturday, November 24, is an affront to the basic human right to safety. In a modern, civilized society of the 21st century, how is it possible for at least 112 people to burn to death in a factory because there were no fire exits and doors were blocked? I thought that our society was past such a stage of human evolution, past the times when events such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claimed the lives of 146 workers. Yet the reality is that such haunting parallels continue. These primarily young women garment workers, just like their counterparts more than a hundred years ago, were forced to make the choice to burn to death or to jump to their death from a 10-story building because they had no other alternative for survival.
How can such a situation be condoned? Can we stand by and watch the reigns of capitalism incapacitate our ability to protest such horrifying encroachments upon human rights? While it is true that the garment industry rakes in $20 billion of profit from the export of garment products to the U.S. and Europe, how can that justify the lack of safety measures in more than 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh? While Bangladesh wants to maintain its position as the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world, would its three million workers, the majority of them women, not be safer and more productive if better measures of safety were introduced? Even if moral outrage does not prompt any change in safety measurements, pure capitalistic motives should make it obvious that better conditions for workers yield greater profits over time.
The Tazreen Fashions Garment factory fire is not even an exception, but rather the norm. Since 2006, more than 500 people have died in factory fires in Bangladesh. Eighty percent of such fires are caused by faulty wiring and electrical short circuits, a fact which many of the importing U.S. and European companies, such as C&A, Carrefour, KIK and Walmart are well aware of. Neither is the Bangladeshi government ignorant of the fact that many of these factories are death traps for the workers.
Is it not time that the government of Bangladesh carry out investigations and invest in a country-wide system of independent inspections, which will ensure that buildings are equipped to meet basic safety standards? Is it not time that all factory owners are held liable for the safety of their workers and prosecuted for negligence? While short-term solutions, such as fining factory owners in the event of such tragedies and compensating the family of the victims are important, these measures are symbolic in light of the major reform that needs to occur before a reluctant government can be induced to overcome corruption to finally hold factory owners liable for such human tragedy.
Corrective action is necessary in order to achieve justice for these victims, and it is up to the Bangladeshi public to pressure its government to work with local and global unions, labor rights organizations, and NGOs, such as the Clean Clothing Campaign, to reform the conditions of poor workers in Bangladesh. Concrete solutions can include passing federal regulations which mandate inspection of buildings, working with trade unions to train workers on safety procedures, and allowing a space for workers to voice their concerns. Oh, and perhaps lobbying U.S. and European brands to use their political and economic power to sign on to such pledges of reform. Because money talks, didn't you know?