Costly fire

The stark pictures of the scorched sewing machines keenly portray the fate of the 112 people who died in the fire in the eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh on Saturday.
Investigators suspect that a short circuit caused the fire, said Maj. Mohammad Mahbub, the fire department operations director. He said it was not the fire itself but the lack of safety measures in the eight-story building that made it so deadly. “Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower,” Mahbub said.
Mohammad Ripu, a survivor, said Monday that he tried to run out of the building when the fire alarm rang but was stopped.
“Managers told us, ‘Nothing happened. The fire alarm had just gone out of order. Go back to work,’” Ripu said. “But we quickly understood that there was a fire. As we again ran for the exit point we found it locked from outside, and it was too late.”
For lack of an open door 112 died, and another 100 went to the hospital. It is not the first garment factory fire in Bangladesh, according to the Associated Press, as more than 200 people have died in garment factory fires in Bangladesh since 2006. It is, however, the largest garment factory fire in Bangladesh
But the largest garment fire was not in Bangladesh nor any other country in Asia.
No, that dishonor happened 101 years ago in the Manhattan Garment District in New York. Nearly an identical story made headline news after the March 25, 1911, fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The fire began late in the day and burned itself out within 30 minutes. In those 30 minutes, 147 immigrant women ran for the doors and discovered they could not escape. The managers, wanting to make sure they stayed at their machines, had locked the doors.
Those who jumped were so many that the firefighters could not get through easily. Once firefighters’ reached the building they discovered their ladders only reached to the sixth floor. The safety nets held out to catch the women broke as groups of women jumped from the flaming building.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire fueled the rise of the unions in America as factory workers advocated for safer working conditions.
A century apart and only the country has changed. The demand for inexpensive clothing propels the search for cheap labor to assemble the fabric. Without stringent attention to safety measures, it ranks low on the list of priorities.
The Tuba Group, which is in charge of the factory that burned, is a major Bangladeshi garment exporter. Their clients include Walmart, Carreflour and IKEA. Its garments go to companies across America and Europe.
Walmart is the only company from any of the American or European companies named as having visited the plants to assess working conditions. According to Associated Press stories on Tuesday, Walmart had visited the factory in 2011, assessed it as a high risk for fires and discontinued using it as a supplier. However, a sub-contractor for Walmart, without Walmart’s knowledge, turned around and used the company. In a news release, Wal-Mart said “Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier.”
But Walmart is only one company seeking to find a source of cheap labor in Bangladesh. North American and European clothiers search the world for less expensive labor in other countries.
According to the brochure printed to entice companies to contract with Tuba Group, the company has 3,437 sewing machines that produce more than 300,000 pieces of clothing per day. Tuba assures contractors that it has “enough fire extinguishers” and a “trained fire fighting team.” Nothing is said about escape routes or doors ever being locked. Nothing is said about training workers on how to use the fire extinguishers.
Surviving worker Yeamin, who uses only one name, said fire extinguishers in the factory didn’t work, “So these were meant just to impress the buyers or those in authority.” According to the AP, TV footage showed a team of investigators finding unused fire extinguishers inside the factory.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire provided impetus for the organization of the International Garment Workers’ Union.
On Monday, about 15,000 Bangladeshi workers gathered to protest and demand justice for the victims and improved safety. Some 200 factories were closed after the protest erupted.
Certainly the Tuba Group itself needs to address the issues the fire exposed, but so do we in America. We all want inexpensive clothing, but first we must insist that even if it adds to the cost of a garment, safety must come first. If we don’t, the bargain we enjoy tomorrow will be paid for with the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh.