Disastrous Fire Weighs on
Clothing Industry, Consumers
A tragic event occurred in late November on the other side of the globe that indirectly will impact many American consumers. It was a tragedy that was not widely reported by the U.S. media. A fire at a clothing factory in the country of Bangladesh killed 121 workers and injured many others. The factory made clothing for Walmart, Sears, and other U.S. retailers.
Press reports indicate the fire began on the factory’s first floor among stacks of yarn and fabric that were not stored in an enclosed and fireproof room as required by Bangladesh law. The fire quickly spread up staircases onto other floors. Factory workers were reportedly told by their floor supervisors that the fire alarms were false and that they should return to work. This caused precious minutes to go by that could have been used to evacuate the workers and prevent a calamity. In addition, local police are investigating allegations that exit doors were actually locked.
The factory is owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd. and had been previously inspected by auditors for a number of large American and European clothing manufacturers. The plant, according to the New York Times, had been given an “orange rating” which meant there had been “higher-risk” violations. The Times and other press reports, however, did not make clear the nature of these violations. The Times also reported allegations that some retailers actively opposed safety upgrades at other facilities.
The fire quickly came to the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Both are calling for improved working conditions and safety measures for the three million employees in Bangladesh’s clothing industry, now one of the largest clothing suppliers to the United States. Both also called for higher wages for clothing workers. Additionally, Secretary Solis noted the striking similarity of this fire to the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire in New York in which 146 workers died due to locked fire escapes. That fire led to sweeping reforms of the American clothing industry.
This tragedy in a far-off location should—if press reports accurately indicate what actually happened—lead to significant changes in a clothing industry that began leaving the United States in the 1970s to take advantage of lower wage structures and less stringent safety regulations overseas.
The tragedy also makes me think about Robert Owens and his efforts in the early 1800s to create the first modern industrial cooperative in New Lanark, Scotland. Owens converted his family-owned weaving mills into an employee-owned cooperative in a successful effort to vastly improve wages and working conditions.
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