(New York) – Global clothing brands tied to a Bangladesh factory that caught fire two years ago should immediately support full and fair compensation for workers and families of the dead. Survivors of the fire at Tazreen Fashions are still suffering from their injuries and loss of income.
Only two out of 16 firms linked to the factory are believed to have paid any meaningful amount of compensation to the victims. Five companies have paid nothing, claiming the factory was making or storing their products without their knowledge or authorization. Other companies have offered undisclosed charitable donations.
At least 112 workers died in the fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory on November 24, 2012, in Savar, outside the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Managers had barred them from leaving by the stairs since they said it was a false alarm, survivors said. The exits were also blocked with cartons as the factory was rushing to fill an order. Workers were badly injured as they jumped out of the upper floors of the burning factory. Hundreds continue to suffer from their injuries and cannot afford their medical treatment.
The fire took place in the same industrial town where five months later the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers.
“The victims of Tazreen, like those of the Rana Plaza tragedy, need a huge amount of support. Many of the survivors might have escaped the flames, but their lives are ruined,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These global brands should no longer dodge their duty to help these people.”
Interviewees said they had received 100,000 Bangladesh Taka (US$1,267) in compensation from the Bangladesh government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), but they had spent most of the funds within the first year of the disaster on medical costs.
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, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The UN guidelines also state that “where business enterprises identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts, they should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes.”
In November 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote to five companies whose products were in some way associated with the Tazreen factory, but who have refused to provide any financial support to the victims because they publicly said either their clothes were not being produced at Tazreen at the time of the fire, or their products had been manufactured or stored in Tazreen without their knowledge or authorization. To date, Dickies (USA), Sears (USA), Disney (USA), Teddy Smith (France), and Walmart (USA), have not replied.
However, 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 on 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.
“Companies should not claim that just because they did not know their products were in Tazreen they have no responsibility to the victims,” Adams said. “The UN Guiding Principles clearly state that all firms have a responsibility to conduct due diligence throughout their supply chain, and provide a remedy to anyone affected by human rights violations.”
Bangladeshi activists who entered Tazreen Fashions after the fire also found labels, clothing, and documentation connected to C&A (Belgium), Edinburgh Woollen Mill (UK), El Corte Ingles (Spain), Sean Combs/Enyce (US), Karl Rieker (Germany), KiK (Germany), Li & Fung (Hong Kong), and Piazza Italia (Italy). Human Rights Watch wrote to each of these companies in November 2013, but one year later, none have replied.
Of these firms, Karl Rieiker, Piazza Italia, Edinburgh Woolen Mills, KiK, El Corte Ingles, and Enyce said they had or would make charitable donations to the victims, according to the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign. However they have not publicized how much they have given or how it was spent, if indeed they had made any donations.
Only two of the brands, Europe's C&A and Li and Fung of Honk Kong, are believed to have made meaningful attempts to compensate the survivors and relatives of those who died, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.
An appeal to raise funds for the many victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy has also failed to raise the necessary amount of money. As of November 2014, the trust had raised just under $19.4 million, less than half of the total amount the ILO-chaired Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund estimates they need. In the case of the Tazreen Fashions fire, the Clean Clothes Campaign believes that compensation should be calculated according to international standards as set out by the Rana Plaza compensation arrangement overseen by the ILO. Human Rights Watch called on the ILO to lead efforts to establish a trust fund for the victims of the Tazreen Fashions fire, similar to the one it established for the Rana Plaza disaster.
However, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, on the cusp of the two-year anniversary of the Tazreen fire an outline agreement has been made between Clean Clothes Campaign, IndustriALL, and C&A to contribute “a significant amount towards full and fair compensation” for the Tazreen victims. Clean Clothes Campaign said the final details of the pledge will be worked out and made public once the cost of the package has been finalized.
Workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that on the day of the fire, Tazreen Fashions was on deadline to meet a big order. Factory managers, they alleged, initially ordered people to stay at work even after fire alarms sounded so that work would not be interrupted. They also claimed that some factory personnel locked the exits on several floors of the building, while other exit routes were blocked by stock prepared for delivery. Many of the survivors injured their limbs or spines as they jumped from the upper floors of the building to escape.
Speaking in September 2014, one of the survivors, Mohammed Sulaiman, said that he has not been able to work since:
Those who could tried to save their lives by jumping off the building. I jumped too, but broke my leg … I was the only earning member [in my family]. My brother stopped studying because of my accident and now works as a daily wage laborer. I have not done any work since the accident because the doctor told me not to do any heavy work. I still have to spend money on medicines. I cannot sit on the floor anymore. I cannot sit or stand for too long at a time.
Aleya, 24, survived the fire by jumping off a fifth-floor window in the factory. She told Human Rights Watch in September 2014 that she had suffered serious injuries which still prevent her from working.
“I was injured on my back, my neck, and my head. I haven’t worked since the accident because of health conditions. I still have pain in my head and back. I can’t sit for more than half hour and can’t talk for too long.”
“It is important that a system is put in place to ensure that the right amount of support goes to the right people,” Adams said. “The survivors of the Tazreen Fashions and the Rana Plaza catastrophes need and deserve long term help.”