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Stop Busting Unions: Give Bangladesh Workers the Tools to Fight Fires and Make Our Government Back Them Up

The Tazreen Fashions Fire, which killed 117 women garment workers on November 24th, 2012, was caused by toxic conditions in business and government. The question we should really be asking isn’t “how did it happen?” it’s “why doesn’t it happen more often?”

117 people trampled and burned to death is a tragedy, but considering how many factories there are like Tazreen, it’s a miracle that more haven’t died.

As an industry, we have proven that we are unable to regulate ourselves. Codes of conduct and loose commitments to “compliance” haven’t worked! We need government and unions to level the playing field so moral operators don’t lose out to the unscrupulous. We have to create a standards floor that is enforced by people from outside the industry.

On March 25th, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire broke out at 23 Washington Place, in New York City. Like Tazreen, the fire exists were locked or blocked, and piles of scrap fabric littered the factory. 146 died – some of smoke inhalation and burning, and others from jumping from the 9th floor of the building to the street below.

In the aftermath of that fire, three things came together to make change. First, unions organized massive protests and public funerals. Those protests galvanized middle class support for new legislation. Finally, government responded with a commission of inquiry that created the first modern set of labor laws in the country. They set standards for safe building exits, fireproofing, and sprinklers and fire fighting equipment. Unions influenced the middle class and the middle class pushed politicians.

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The Unions knew that more safety equipment was not the only problem. They also pushed for better eating and bathroom facilities for workers and limited the number of hours women and children could work — actions that humanized the workers.

After Tazreen, these three pieces haven’t come together. In Bangladesh, the unions have been crushed by government opposition and brutal factory owners. The middle class never made it to the streets. The consensus in government seems to be that the death of female garment workers is simply a cost of having a robust garment sector.

To take action, the U.S. government needs to make it clear that Bangladesh will never get duty free access to our markets unless their government starts taking safety seriously. The E.U., Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, needs to do the same. By giving duty-free access to markets, diplomats are rewarding unscrupulous business practices.

The Bangladeshi government needs to imprison the owners of dangerous factories. After Triangle, the owners were charged with manslaughter. Letting walk free after a disaster of this magnitude just creates the conditions for bigger catastrophes. Why would owners follow the laws if they know they can make more money and won’t face any consequences if something goes wrong?

The government claims they lack the funds to enforce laws, but that is a thin excuse. In the United States, factories paid for the cost of the enforcement of codes through fines, penalties, and taxes. Bangladesh is a poor country, but labor is very cheap, and code enforcement is all about getting people on the ground and giving them enforcement powers. Why not use the police? They seem to have plenty of cops on hand when they’re putting down labor unrest.

Brands and retailers are not responsible for the safety of every factory, but they are responsible for where their goods are made. But the evidence shows that retailers won’t make morally sound decisions unless it makes financial sense, so the U.S. and E.U. need to pass and enforce laws that will strongly penalize companies that are linked to suppliers that violate labor regulations. Companies need to know exactly how much their decision to save 50 cents on a shirt might cost them.

Consumers have to hold them accountable, too, by boycotting retailers that make the mistake of subcontracting in illegal factories. Retailers might claim that they’re unable to monitor their supply chain, but if a supplier fails to deliver a container of shirts, the retailer knows immediately. They need a financial incentive to stop turning a blind eye.

Most critically, Bangladesh, factory owners, retailers, and the US and EU governments have to support strong unions. New York was able to learn the lesson of the Triangle fire because unions already existed that could turn public outrage into political pressure. Bangladesh has systematically crushed its unions in the interest of maintaining labor stability and low wages. Poor safety conditions are just one of the diabolical consequences of the decision to block collective bargaining.

There’s another issue on the table. Adjusted for inflation, the women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory made around $170 a week, or $680 a month. In Bangladesh, workers make $36 a month. At $36 a month, workers can’t afford to complain about safety conditions. If they lose their job, they can’t eat. Wages have to rise at least enough to allow a real back and forth between the workers and the owners on critical safety issues.

The problem of fire safety was solved 100 years ago. Why do we keep rolling back the clock? Let’s use legislation and people power to make moral conduct mandatory for our government and our retailers and force the Bangladeshi garment industry to take safety seriously, before the next fire.