Three months after at least 112 workers died in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire, dangerous and deadly working conditions are commonplace for the nearly 2 million Bangladeshi garment workers, who have little recourse than to take jobs that may kill them.
Despite international outrage and local promises to improve workplace safety, at least 37 fire and fire-related incidents have occurred in Bangladeshi garment factories since the Nov. 24 Tazreen tragedy, according to data compiled by Solidarity Center staff in Bangladesh. Nine more people have lost their lives at work and more than 650 garment workers have been injured. The Solidarity Center in the capital, Dhaka, has received reports that underage workers were injured at one factory fire incident.
February 20, World Day of Social Justice, highlights the necessity of promoting decent work, gender equity and access to social well-being and justice for all. Despite a global outcry about workplace safety following the Tazreen fire, where flames engulfed a multistory building lacking in fire escapes and exits, Bangladesh has averaged three fire incidents a week. Bangladeshi garment workers—extremely poor and vulnerable and primarily women—risk their lives every day on the job, often too fearful to complain about substandard conditions and possible dangers.
Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of total national exports. Yet the base pay for a garment worker in Bangladesh is the equivalent of $37 a month—the same monthly amount it costs to buy food for one person and the definition of “extreme poverty.”
The Solidarity Center, which for years has been supporting workers’ rights in Bangladesh— including providing fire safety training—is working with partners to hold accountable the Bangladeshi government, which is bound by law to protect its citizens.
Crucially, workers must be empowered and protected—legally and physically—to demand accountability and review their government’s performance in enforcing laws. Bangladesh has laws that, on paper, protect workers, guarantee their right to freely speak and associate and mandate fire escapes. It must enforce these laws. Bangladesh’s workers are best-positioned to improve health and safety conditions. They are in the factory every day. They know which exits are locked, how hazardous materials are stored and when illegal building additions are being constructed above their heads.
Yet, when garment workers in Bangladesh have sought to improve their working conditions, they are harassed, attacked and, in the case of union organizer Aminul Islam, murdered.
“If the government and buyers are serious about addressing deadly working conditions, workers must be able to assert their rights, organize unions with their co-workers, raise safety concerns and demand better working conditions according to their best judgment,” said Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia director.