The US-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights has released a report suggesting the owners of the factory, Tazreen Fashion Ltd, were criminally negligent, but the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is blaming arsonists for the disaster.
American retailer Wal-Mart Stores, Inc has cut its ties with the factory, which it says was carrying out subcontracted work on behalf of its suppliers, but without Wal-Mart's permission.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Charlie Kernaghan, director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights
KERNAGHAN: The fire went of well over 20 hours and many, many people were burnt way beyond being able to recognise them. In fact, 53 workers were buried in a common grave just this morning with no identities. They couldn't name them or their parents couldn't name them or find them. So there could be many, many more people dead that have not been taken out of this factory.
EWART: And in terms of the allegation of criminal negligence, that I presume is based to some extent on the witness reports you've received and allegations that workers were actually prevented from leaving the building?
KERNAGHAN: Yeah exactly. The production manager, Mr Monju shut and locked the gate on the third floor prohibiting the workers from coming down. The fire started at 6.30 at night on Saturday, November 24th. The workers themselves didn't feel the smoke, smell the smoke, they didn't hear any fire alarm until about 6.45. When the alarm went off, they smelt, by that time, they were smelling the smoke, it's dark at that time, they could see the flames. They were desperate to go down the stairs and actually some of the workers we were talking to on the fifth floor, they actually made it down to the third floor, where this production manager slammed the gate shut and locked it from the outside and wouldn't let them go down. And so they were just trapped. This is a criminal action. They were trapped and that's why so many of these workers were killed, over a minimum of 112 workers were killed. It's probably going to go much higher.
EWART: I gather that the workers who were in the factory at the time were already working overtime?
KERNAGHAN: Yes, the factory operates actually. They alternate every other week, so they work 72 hours a week, one week and the following week, they work 81 hours and they just keep shifting like that. So essentially they get two days off a month.
The wages are pitiful, like in US dollars, the helpers get 18 cents an hour. The junior sewers get like 21 cents an hour. Senior operators get 23 cents an hour. These workers really are some of the hardest workers anywhere in the world and they're also the poorest paid and on top of the low wages, they're working six and seven days a week. They have no rights, they're beaten if they make a mistake, if they spend too long in the bathroom, they'll be actually slapped or punched. The toilets are filthy. Sick leave is not allowed. Maternity leave is not allowed. There's no day care centre and all overtime is obligatory. There's no question about it. If you don't work, you're fired that very day.
EWART: So against that background, presumably it doesn't come entirely as a surprise that this production manager acted in the way that hes alleged to have acted, because presumably he was acting on the instructions of somebody higher up the chain?
KERNAGHAN: Yes, exactly. I mean it's really tragic and unfortunate, but many of these factory owners look upon these workers as if they're less than human. For them, they actually can lock the gates on these young women. Eight five per cent of the workers are young girls, young women and so they're easily trapped by these managers.
Something has to give. The government itself is now claiming that this was like sabotage and it's complete nonsense.
Every time there's a fire in Bangladesh, there was one in Hameem in 2010, another big factory where 29 workers leapt to their deaths because they were trapped inside the factory. Every time something like that happens, the owner of the factory says well, it was sabotage and there's never been an investigation. So I mean likely, it's very possible right now, even with these deaths of over 112 workers, there will not be an investigation, it will just be washed away and everything illegal about this factory will just go on.
EWART: So therefore, it would seem to me that when you have a company like Walmart involved here, but now seem to be washing their hands of the whole affair, that they're saying the work that was being done in this factory, they didn't know about it. But I mean surely they should be getting involved, shouldn't they and they should be doing something about what has happened and the conditions these workers have to operate under?
KERNAGHAN: Yeah, exactly. I mean Walmart's the biggest retailer in the world. Clearly, they have power, they should know where their garments are being made, they should know under what conditions and at what wages. So they have an enormous responsibility, which they shirk all the time, so I mean they avoid it. But so many of these labels. It was Wal-Mart, it was C&A, it was Kick, Leon Fund, Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Pizza Italia, Teddy Smith, Dickies, on and on, Sears. In other words, there were a lot of people involved in this and it's impossible that any of these labels would have looked at the conditions in this factory and agreed to produce in this factory, when there was no fire escapes. There are no outside fire escapes. There's one exit, one main exit and there's three staircases inside the factory, but when you go down any one of those three staircases, if it's not locked, like it was for these workers, even if you could get through, you entered into the first floor, which was a warehouse, where all of the yarn was and fabric was boxed and all over the place and it turned into an inferno. That's where the fire started and that's where the fire was most drastic. So even if you could get down those stairs, you would have been burnt to death immediately when you reached the first floor.
EWART: So can your organisation bring pressure to bear on these in Wal-Mart's case, obviously, a giant enterprise, but can you bring pressure to bear on them to actually take some sort of interest in where their products are coming from?
KERNAGHAN: Almost no, because they're so powerful and so arrogant. They play by their own rules. I mean Wal-Mart's involved right now with bribery all across the country, whether it's all across the world, whether it's in Mexico or other countries. So I mean Walmart's so big and so nasty that it's out of control and really the workers in Bangladesh haven't a chance to push back against these factories.
EWART: So what about then the other end of the chain, if you like, the Bangladeshi government. I mean you say that they're claiming this latest incident was sabotage and this is what they've done before. But surely we've had a number of fires in Bangladesh now, there's been fatal fires in Pakistan as well, under similar circumstances. Isn't it time for some sort of intervention, some pressure to be put on these governments to at least look at what caused these fires and come up with facts?
KERNAGHAN: Well, I mean, exactly. I mean something is going wrong in Bangladesh where there can be fire after fire, where workers have no rights, where they're cheated out of their wages.
The government of Bangladesh actually is running a black list in these export processing zones where no worker has the right to organise or has the right to any say whatsoever. So something terribly is going wrong in Bangladesh. It has their future, there's an estimate that within the next eight years, there could be ten-and-a-half million garment workers in Bangladesh and they could be cranking out 57 billion dollars worth of clothing.
Bangladesh needs this, but what they're doing, they're doing this on the backs of these young girls. They will sacrifice them. They will let them burn to death. They will not allow them to organise. They will not allow the workers to have any chance whatsoever to improve themselves. All these workers want, they'll work their brains out, they'll work around the clock, but they want to be treated like human beings and have a few rights and the labels, the Walmarts and unfortunately the government of Bangladesh will not give these workers the chance to have a fair playing field.