12/03/2012 07:03 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Learning from the Bangladesh Apparel Factory Tragedy

In the blackened rubble of the fire at a Bangladesh apparel factory last week that killed 112 workers are charred pieces of clothing made for Walmart, Disney, Dickies, Sean Combs and Sears. Scenes from the fire are heartbreaking -- and eerily reminiscent of the deadly blaze that roared through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City more than 100 years ago killing 146 garment workers.

The images from the Bangladesh fire show workers who jumped to their death. Others were burned beyond recognition. Eyewitnesses have emerged who recall managers who insisted they keep working and even pulled up gates to prevent their departure, despite the blaring alarms. The fear and panic that the workers in Bangladesh must have experienced is unimaginable. The circumstances that led to this egregious loss of life -- and the blatant unwillingness of the ones who reaped the benefits of the factory's goods to take any responsibility -- are unconscionable.

Company codes of conduct and industry-dominated monitoring organizations are supposed to monitor these factories and provide oversight. But they don't. They won't. Walmart, Dickies, Sean Combs and Sears have all been quick to express their sympathy while failing to take any responsibility and throwing up their hands at the notion that they can do anything to prevent any future tragedies.

Governments can and should insist that global trade rules include enforceable workers' rights and that health and safety laws meet international standards and are effectively enforced. American citizens should insist (since the goods produced in these factories are sold in our markets) that retailers and apparel brands sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which has already been embraced by PVH Corporation that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. The agreement, initiated by Bangladeshi and international labor organizations and workers' rights NGOs, is far more stringent than voluntary corporate programs. The agreement mandates inspections by trained independent fire safety experts, public reporting of inspection reports, mandatory repairs and renovations to address all identified hazards. Perhaps most importantly, the agreement requires brands to cease doing business with any supplier that refuses to make needed repairs and operate safely.

But that is only part of the equation. Workers are the best advocates for themselves. The agreement ensures that workers and unions play a central role in maintaining higher safety levels. The agreement establishes worker-led safety committees in all factories and makes it possible for unions to educate workers on how they can protect their rights and their safety, including their right to refuse unsafe work. The death toll from factory fires will continue to mount until governments and the giant retail companies take serious their responsibility to protect workers and until the workers themselves are allowed unionize so they can successfully advocate for themselves.

Shortly after the Bangladesh fire, another factory went up in flames in that country. Fortunately, no one was injured. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire shocked America into action and started a movement to make American work places safer for employees. We can only hope that the Tazreen Garment Workers fire will spark similar outrage and action, not just for garment workers in Bangladesh, but for workers everywhere.