WASHINGTON -- Sumi Abedin hasn't worked a day since Nov. 24 of last year. That was when her workplace, Tazreen Fashions in Bangladesh, went up in flames, killing at least 112 workers. Abedin, 24, was brave enough to jump from the factory's third floor, having found no other clear route to safety.
Still recovering from a broken leg and hand from the fall, Abedin has traveled from Bangladesh to Capitol Hill, hoping to pressure U.S. garment buyers to commit themselves to improving safety standards at workplaces in her homeland. She's also here to demand that Walmart, which, among other retailers, had clothes manufactured at the facility, pay compensation to victims like herself and the families of those who died at Tazreen.
"I have come here to ensure safety at readymade garment factories," Abedin, who ran a machine sewing pockets onto pants, told HuffPost in Bengali.
The disaster at Tazreen was the worst garment factory fire in the history of Bangladesh. Many of the deceased were burned beyond recognition, and as many as 53 bodies were buried unclaimed, according to reports in Bangladesh.
The factory's safety lapses have been well documented. The massive building didn't have a staircase mounted to the outside for emergency exit, and each floor had windows securely bolted with iron frames, effectively turning the factory into a cage for workers. Even so, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attributed the fire's consequences to an act of sabotage, rather than negligence on the part of factory owners.
"During those days, nobody inquired how I was," Abedin said. "Nobody went to meet me to say words of consolation, either."
After the tragedy, Abedin said, the factory gave her roughly $150, to cover back pay and severance. Most of that sum has already been swallowed by medical expenses, she said. Abedin's doctor has told her she should give herself a year of recovery before trying to work again.
"I'm not fully recovered, so I can't take a job," she said.
In the wake of the fire, Walmart officials said the company had stopped authorizing its subcontractors to produce clothes at the factory. But as The New York Times reported in December, at least two suppliers had continued manufacturing there in the run-up to the fire. Walmart said such production would have been a violation of its standards for suppliers. The facility had been given safety ratings of "high risk" and later "medium risk" by an assessor for Walmart in 2011, according to reports.
In an emailed statement, a Walmart spokesman did not directly address Abedin's demand for compensation for the families of workers who died or were injured at Tazreen, but said the company is committed to "raising our own standards" and "partnering with other stakeholders." Walmart announced this week that it would donate $1.6 million to launch a safety training academy in Bangladesh.
Disastrous factory fires occur with sad regularity in Bangladesh. Between 1990 and 2012, there were at least 33 major fire incidents at garment facilities, claiming 500 lives.
With a mounting death toll, labor activists are pressuring U.S. brands like Gap to sign onto a binding agreement to improve safety in the country's factories. Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor activist joining Abedin in the U.S., said the memorandum of understanding with labor unions and non-profits would establish a safety task force and improve infrastructure in factories that lack sufficient fire escapes and other basic safety measures. PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, entered into the agreement last year.
Abedin told HuffPost that she believes the use of subcontractors does not absolve Walmart or other brands and retailers of responsibility, since those companies benefited from the clothes she made. "I worked for them -- that's the reason they should pay," she said.
Gap has balked at signing on, likely concerned with the costs and responsibilities of a program that many of its competitors wouldn't be a part of. (Gap was not involved in the Tazreen factory fire, but the company's clothes were manufactured at the Ha-Meem factory in Bangladesh, where a fire claimed the lives of 26 workers in 2010.) Instead, the San Francisco-based retailer launched its own safety initiative with $22 million last fall, said Gap spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh, calling the program "accountable and capital-driven."
"While we know we can't solve these issues alone and hope that efforts toward a multi-stakeholder initiative continue, we believe our ... initiative will help make an immediate, positive impact toward apparel industry worker safety in Bangladesh," Mesloh said in an email.
Such commitments, however well-intentioned, are voluntary and non-binding, and therefore can't guarantee basic protections for workers, argued Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring group. Nova said that many Bangladeshi factories are in disrepair, with little code enforcement from government officials, and that workers need guarantees from U.S. companies that they'll allow independent inspections and invest in upgrades when necessary.
"The reason why a binding agreement is necessary is the brands have long been promising to protect the safety of workers and they have failed," Nova said. "When people repeatedly make promises they don't keep, you need to get it in writing. ... Unless that agreement specifically requires them to fund the cost of repairs and retrofitting in factories, we are not going to have a meaningful impact in Bangladesh."
Akter, the Bangladeshi labor activist, said meaningful safety improvements in the country's factories will require the cooperation and investment of U.S. brands and retailers, as well as their collaboration with workers and trade unions.
"The factories are not complying with the law, and the factory owners are so powerful," she said. "These Western retailers, they have a responsibility -- not just with getting their merchandise. They also have a responsibility to give a safe working place to [the people] making clothes for them."