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Tragic costs of cheap female labour

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Factory fire disaster draws the spotlight on to global retailers sourcing clothes from Bangladesh.

At least 112 people are reported to have died in a factory fire just outside the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on 24 November.

The blaze, which tore through a clothes factory operated by Tazreen Fashions, is the country’s worst factory fire to date.

Initial investigations suggest the fire was started deliberately, and that the factory doors were locked, preventing many from escaping, so that the death toll includes a number of workers whose only means of escape was to jump from the building.

Bangladesh’s garment factories generate 80 per cent of the country’s total export revenue and make clothes for brands including Wal-Mart, JC Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour and Tesco.

And this factory is believed to have supplied a number of Western companies and had contracts with Disney, Ikea and Edinburgh Woollen Mill.

US retail giant Walmart was quick to distance itself from the company, blaming the link to its name on a subcontractor operating without its knowledge.

Factory fires are not uncommon in Bangladesh, and this latest tragedy will add to the toll of over 400 workers who have died in 50 factory fires in Bangladesh since 1990.

In 2006 84 people were killed when fire engulfed a textile factory in the southern city of Chittagong, after fire exits had been blocked.

According to War on Want, there are over 4,500 textile factories in the country and 85 per cent of the industry’s workforce is female.

Cheap labour, in the form of the country’s 1.5 million female garment workers, who earn around 60 per cent of their male colleagues’ salaries, has enabled Bangladesh to become the world’s second largest exporter of textiles behind China.

Although the industry has provided greater economic freedom for many Bangladeshi women, the country is renowned for poor working conditions, lax health and safety laws and overcrowding, meaning the price they pay is a daily risk of injury or even death.

In recent months Bangladeshi workers have called for better pay and working conditions, but labour rights activists are subject to intimidation and harassment by the government, who view their activities as harmful to the burgeoning industry.

In April of this year Aminul Islam, a senior representative of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), was tortured and murdered. The investigation into his death remains open.

  1. sue tapply says:

    And the Guardian on this issue: ‘Until western consumers make safety standards an issue for the big clothing brands, factory fires will continue to take lives…’ ‘Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest apparel producer. It did not attain that status by achieving high levels of productivity, or a strong transportation infrastructure; it got there by being the rock-bottom cheapest place to make clothing.’
    ‘This derives from three factors: the industry’s lowest wages (a minimum apparel wage of 18 cents an hour), ruthless suppression of unions, and a breathtaking disregard for worker safety.’

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