Retailers Should Fulfill Responsibility to Ensure Worker Protections
(New York) – The survivors of a Bangladesh factory fire, which killed at least 112 garment workers last year, are still suffering from their injuries and loss of income and have not received adequate compensation, Human Rights Watch said today. The brands that were sourcing garments from Tazreen Fashions should immediately join an International Labour Organization effort to fund full and fair compensation to all the injured and the families of the dead.
In recent interviews with workers and relatives of two missing workers, many told Human Rights Watch that a year after the November 24, 2012 fire, they had received no compensation. Survivors said that they have been forced to sell off their possessions to pay for treatment. One said her husband was now begging for money. Others said they could not afford medical care, could no longer work, and were continually in pain.
“One year after the Tazreen fire, victims are still suffering and waiting for adequate compensation,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Many retailers with production at the factory have not yet helped a group of very poor workers and their families.”
In the months leading up to the fire, Tazreen’s workers made clothes for prominent international retailers including Walmart, Sears, Karl Reiker, and Teddy Smith. Each company later said that garments were produced at Tazreen without their knowledge. Human Rights Watch wrote letters to these and 16 other companies seeking clarification of their connection with Tazreen, but none have responded.
Workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that on the day of the fire, Tazreen Fashions was on deadline to fulfill a big order. Managers, they alleged, initially ordered people to stay at work even after fire alarms sounded. They also claimed that some factory personnel locked the exits on several floors of the building, while exit routes were blocked by stock prepared for delivery.
According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility “to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations” and also take remedial action should abuses occur.
Meaningful compensation has so far only been provided by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the Bangladesh government, the European retailer C&A, and Li & Fung of Hong Kong. But injured workers who received 100,000 Taka (US$1,267) each told Human Rights Watch that the money was insufficient and ran out after the first few months.
Some survivors who were badly injured as they jumped out of the burning factory said that they had not received anything because they were not healthy enough to claim the compensation package provided by the BGMEA. Others said that the officials handling compensation claims did not believe them despite their injuries.
The Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes campaign has calculated that the amount of long-term compensation for the injured and deceased should be at least US$5.7 million, and could be shared between the factory owner, retailers, the BGMEA, and the government. This is based on a formula previously used by Bangladeshi trade unions and foreign retailers, including Gap, to set the amount of compensation following a factory fire in 2010, in which 29 people died.
Bangladeshi activists who entered Tazreen Fashions after the fire found labels, clothing, and documentation connected to C&A (Germany/Belgium), Delta Apparel (US), Dickies (US), Edinburgh Woollen Mill (UK), El Corte Ingles (Spain), Sean Combs/Enyce (US), Karl Rieker (Germany), KiK (Germany), Li & Fung (Hong Kong), Piazza Italia (Italy), Sears (US), Teddy Smith (France), Walmart (US), and Disney (US). Many other foreign companies acted as suppliers, placing orders with Tazreen on behalf of the brands.
According to the Clean Clothes campaign, Karl Reiker claims it has given donations though its agents, while Piazza Italia and Edinburgh Woollen Mills have offered small voluntary donations. KiK, El Corte Ingles, and Enyce said they will also make voluntary donations, but have not said how much or when. Only C&A and Karl Reiker attended a meeting chaired by the International Labour Organization in September to discuss the setting up of a full and fair compensation scheme.
Dickies released a statement stating it had cut ties with the factory some time before. The CEO of Delta Apparels told ABC News on December 4, 2012, that Tazreen had not been authorized to produce its clothes. Sears was quoted in the Wall Street Journal of November 29, 2012, saying that merchandise was being made at the factory without its approval. Teddy Smith told France 24 on December 4, 2012, that a supplier had placed an order with the factory without its knowledge. On December 21, 2012, Disney said that several boxes of its sweatshirts were found at Tazreen, but they had not been manufactured there, and had been stored there without its authorization.
Bangladeshi activists found documents in the factory after the fire which appear to show that Walmart was, indirectly, one of Tazreen’s largest customers, even though it had officially cut ties with the factory after its inspectors uncovered many safety violations a year before. The documents suggest that intermediaries placed at least six orders with Tazreen on behalf of Walmart in the 12 months leading up to the fire. At the time of the fire, it appears Tazreen was working on at least two orders for Walmart, documents and garments found at the factory suggest. Two days after the accident, the company released a statement saying that Tazreen “was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart” and that a “supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.”
A serious question also arises as to whether Walmart knew that Tazreen was a fire risk well before the disaster occurred. A factory inspection, conducted in December 2011 on behalf of NTD Apparel Inc., a Canadian company that supplied Walmart, revealed that Tazreen was in breach of Walmart's safety standards. Inspectors stated that the factory, which employed more than 1,600 workers and reported an annual turnover of US$36 million, had “inaccessible/insufficient firefighting equipment,” an “inadequate evacuation plan,” and “partially blocked exit, routes, stairwells.”
In a November 19 letter, Human Rights Watch asked Walmart to explain why its other suppliers appear to have placed orders with Tazreen if it was no longer an authorized factory; whether it had informed them of this decision; whether Walmart had worked with Tazreen to try to improve its safety measures; and whether the company would agree to help provide the victims of the fire with full and fair compensation. Walmart has not replied.
When asked in August by al-Jazeera about compensation, the company wrote that Walmart is “focused on investing our resources in proactive programs that will address worker safety in the garment and textile industry in Bangladesh and prevent tragedies before they happen.”
Human Rights Watch has also written to Walmart’s suppliers, including Amerella of Canada Ltd., International Direct Group, International Intimates, IT Apparels Hong Kong Limited, NTD Apparel Inc, and Topson Downs, asking them to explain their relationship with Tazreen and whether they would contribute to the compensation fund.
“Given the scale of the orders, if Walmart had undertaken due diligence about where its clothes were being manufactured it should have known that Tazreen was continuing to supply them,” Adams said.
In the wake of the Tazreen fire and the subsequent collapse of the Rana Plaza building in which more than 1100 workers died, Walmart and other foreign retailers have pledged to improve the fire and building safety of Bangladeshi factories. They recently announced a joint program for inspecting factories, and for the first time published some details of the factories that supply them. The companies have not, however, pledged to help other factories in the supply chain, such as subcontractors or textile mills – for instance Aswad Mills, which caught fire in October, killing seven employees.
Walmart, Sears, and other retailers have also not agreed to a compensation package for the Rana Plaza victims.
“Walmart and the other companies need to provide adequate and timely compensation for victims and their families,” Adams said. “Victims and their families are suffering needlessly while these companies bury their heads in the sand.”
After the fire, government investigators found that the factory was in breach of Bangladeshi fire safety standards. Its owner insists that the nine-story building was safe – but it had no fire escape, and he was only authorized to have a three-story building. The factory did not have adequate equipment and procedures to prevent or fight fires. One worker told Human Rights Watch that routine fire drills were “ludicrous” as they took place during the lunch break when people were already outside. Another said that staff were told beforehand when inspections were going to take place and to make sure things looked in order.
The government investigators said that the owner, Delwar Hossein, and nine mid-level managers should be prosecuted for negligence. In November 2013 the police said that this had not happened yet as they had not completed their own enquiry. In April activists filed a case at the Dhaka High Court criticizing the authorities for their “inaction” and calling for Hossein’s arrest. On November 24, 2013, the High Court ordered the government to increase the compensation, and extend it to the families of those missing workers whose DNA had recently been traced.
“With proper oversight and inspections, this tragedy could have been avoided,” Adams said. “Western companies can no longer avoid the fact that people were killed and injured because they were providing cheap labor in unsafe conditions.”
Statements from injured workers who did not receive compensation:
“I was on the fourth floor when the fire started. I jumped onto the roof of a two-storied building next door. I hurt my head, side, and leg. Because of my injuries, I can’t operate a sewing machine anymore. I still have severe headaches. I needed surgery for my injuries and then went to stay in my village to recuperate. I did not get any compensation. I was away for four months, and when I came back the factory owner told me I was too late.”
– Rokeya Begum (26), sewing operator
“I was on the fifth floor when the fire broke out. I asked the officer to open the gate but he refused. So then we broke one of the widows, and I jumped. I cut my arm and hand. When I fell, a metal rod went into my leg and came out on the other side. I also suffered burns. Three of my cousins died… I was treated in hospital and at home. For three months I couldn’t wear clothes because of the burns. My relatives took me to my village and carried back the bodies of those killed. When I returned after three months the BGMEA did not give me compensation. My husband has sold everything to help me, including the tin sheets of our home. He has begged for money in the bazaar. My sons have borrowed money. I have all the medical documents but the BGMEA said it has stopped giving compensation.”
– Anzu Begum (45), cleaner
“That day was the date for a shipment and so when we entered the factory the managers said, ‘you finish the shipment by today. You cannot go until you finish it.’ So no one was able to leave until 8 p.m. There was lots of pressure on us… According to our fire training, we are meant to exit using the stairs. But because there was a shipment due that day, there was a lot of stuff blocking the stairs. The manager said, ‘don’t panic,’ but we panicked when we saw the smoke and saw that the gate was locked… I went down to the third floor where the mechanics broke a window. Some men threw me onto the roof of the next building. Both my hands were lacerated with cuts. I hurt my head, and now can’t see properly. I can’t work when the lights are very bright. I also fractured my right leg… My husband took me home to Comilla for treatment. When we heard that the BGMEA was compensating us I took a bus for Dhaka, but on that day there was a hartal (political strike) and the protestors set fire to the bus and burned my papers. The BGMEA still promised to pay me, but they haven’t so far.”
– Nasima Akhter (25), senior sewing operator
“I was on the fourth floor when we heard the fire alarm. We all tried to go downstairs but at the door the floor-in-charge stopped us, shouting at us and using bad language. He told us to go back to work. Then we saw the smoke and we were very worried and tried to escape but the gate to the stairs was locked… I followed a man who was crawling on the floor. He said, ‘hold my leg.’ We entered into a director’s room, which was packed with workers. They broke the windows and jumped. I didn’t dare but some people on the next roof were holding up a bamboo pole. I caught it and was rescued. But when I fell, I hit my head. I have a problem with my waist and broke some ribs. A metal rod went into my big toe and it is still very swollen… I received my two months’ salary but the BGMEA did not compensate me. I called them but they said ‘no, we checked, and you do not deserve compensation.’”
– Anisa (35), sewing operator
“I was in the toilet when I heard the hue and cry. I went down to the second floor but there was no escape so I went upstairs to the sample room. There were lots of people phoning, saying ‘Mum, Dad, pray for me, I’m stuck, there’s no way out.’ We broke the window and through that gap, two people at a time could jump on to the roof of the next building. When I jumped I hurt my chest and right arm and was cut by the window grill. I injured my waist and lower back. The doctor told me not to work. I went to my village for treatment for one-and-a-half months and when I came back the BGMEA said it was too late to receive compensation. I told them ‘I’m a poor man, I’m begging, please help me.’ But they said ‘no.’”
– Mohammed Mosharraf Hussein (27), sewing operato
“Sometimes the factory was inspected by local agents. They told us they were coming, so we could arrange everything, like sand in the fire bucket, water, fire extinguishers. The training they provided was ridiculous. They would ring the fire alarm at the lunch break when the workers were going out anyway… During the fire, people tried to run from the fourth floor down to the third floor but the mid-level managers shouted at them to return to work. Ten minutes later there was a panic as we saw thick smoke and the three mid-level managers left. So the people tried to break the windows. I went into the sample room and broke a window. When we pulled off the grill it fell onto me and I was hurt. There was a bit of a stampede. People ran over me and I broke my hand. Then I got up and I jumped. I got massive cuts to my foot, and hurt my head. I lost consciousness and later remained disoriented for three to four months. I couldn’t identify anything. I went to various hospitals. When I went to the BGMEA, they said I was too late. One NGO [nongovernmental organization], Caritas, helped me and gave me 30-40,000 Taka (US$385-US$515), (n.b. this was paid by C&A), but already I spent 200,000-250,000 Taka (US$2,570-US$3,212). I have sold almost everything to pay for my treatment.”
– Akash Mia Hassan (30), sewing supervisor
No compensation received by relatives of missing workers:
“The day of the fire, I told my daughter not to go to work, but she went anyway. We have found no trace of her so far. The BGMEA did not give me any compensation because they said that no-one had found her body or traces of her DNA. My daughter used to work in that factory and I have the ID card to prove it but the BGMEA and the factory are denying everything. There were only the two of us in the family because my husband abandoned me when my daughter was a three-month-old baby. Now she’s gone, she’s missing. The neighbors help me but I’m alone.”
– Rokeya, mother of Hena Akhtar (17), sewing helper
“Our house was right next to the factory. When the fire broke out I rushed to it to rescue my wife. I tried to enter it, but couldn’t. We never found her body, and haven’t received any compensation. Our house also burnt down in the fire and we lost all our possessions. Now I am left looking after our boy, who is 23 months old.”
– Mohammed Abdul Jaber, husband of Mahfuza Khatun (22), sewing operator
Injured workers who received insufficient compensation:
“On that day, I was on the fifth floor and was sewing the collar of a jacket, when suddenly there was a fire alarm. I stopped working and saw some of my fellow workers begin to run. They were trying to escape. But the supervisor said ‘don’t run, don’t panic, this is a false alarm.’ So I waited some time until smoke suddenly came up and it became suffocating. I could not breathe properly. I tried to get to the stairs but people were going mad. Some were going down, others were coming up. The fifth floor began to fill with people, and was engulfed with smoke. Some fellow workers started to break the grill covering a window and were able to force an opening. I went through it and jumped. Luckily there were some tin sheds surrounding the factory and one of those broke my fall. But I cut my left knee, broke my right foot and broke ribs. I received 100,000 Taka (US$1,267) compensation from the BGMEA as well as two months’ wages (8400 Taka, or US$100). But I still can’t work as I can’t walk properly. I am still using crutches.”
– Shahnaz Parveen (34), sewing operator
“We used to have fire drill trainings but if there was lots of work, they told us not to go. This training was silly, it was like a game and people would not take it seriously. Then when there was the real fire, they told us it was a false alarm. So what was the point of that training? […] I was on the fourth floor when I heard the alarm. I panicked and ran up to the fifth floor to find my daughter Tahirer who worked there. But I couldn’t find her. It was pitch black and I was crawling on the floor. I returned to the fourth floor. It was packed with people. We all held hands and decided to break a window. I went towards it but tripped on a machine and banged my left eye. My face began to fill with blood. But we broke the window and I jumped… I received the compensation, but this was not enough to pay for my treatment. It ran out after a few months. I’ve had to have two operations for my eye but still can’t see anything out of it. Also, I cannot stand for a long time as I fractured my back.”
– Shahanaz (40), finishing section, folder
“I was on the fifth floor. There was a sudden hue and cry. I felt somebody kick me and I fell against a wall and then onto the floor. There was a bit of a stampede and people walked over me. I lost consciousness. Somebody rescued me, a supervisor. But I had head injuries. I couldn’t recognize my husband or child for six or seven months. I received the compensation, but I still feel a severe pain in my head and sometimes lose my memory and become confused.”
– Tahirer (25), finishing section
“I was on the third floor. When we heard the fire alarm the manager said this is a false alarm. When we saw the smoke we didn’t know what to do. We broke the exhaust fan and one by one jumped out of it. But I didn’t dare to jump. I was thinking if I jump, I die, but if I stay, I can’t breathe. I didn’t know if those who had jumped before me were dead. I was thinking this when suddenly someone pushed me and I fell. I landed in a crowd of people. I damaged my spine. I can’t work anymore because I can’t sit for long stretches… I got the compensation but it is all finished and I can’t get any more treatment because I have run out of money. I’m not feeling so well anymore.”
– Mohammed Sayed Ali (26), sewing helper