Photos by Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
e still don’t know exactly how many of Swapna’s coworkers were killed at the Tazreen Fashions factory on November 24, 2012. She was sewing shorts—“half-pants,” they’re called in Bangladesh—when on the ground floor piles of yarn and acrylic fabric began to burn. She had just become pregnant by her husband, Mominul, who worked in the factory with her as a quality inspector. When the fire alarm went off, the floor managers told the hundreds of workers to sit back down, yelling that there was nothing wrong. Minutes later, when the alarm went off again, it was too late. Smoke snaked up the three staircases; the lights went out. There was no fire escape. She thought it would be better to jump than to be burned alive, but all the windows were blocked by steel security grates.
Mominul had given up looking for his wife shortly after the lights went out, instead running to a corner of his floor where men had managed to tear the grate from one of the windows. By chance, construction workers had left a flimsy grid of bamboo scaffolding leaning on an outside wall, and scores of workers were able to shinny out of the window and down onto the roof of a nearby shed. He stood on the shed roof and watched as the fire climbed up the eight-story factory. Several workers tore exhaust fans from the windows and jumped, about a hundred feet, to their deaths. Suddenly, a charred, shrieking figure scrambled down the scaffolding and onto the shed roof. The figure grabbed him, screaming wildly. Mominul didn’t realize, until she calmed down, that it was his wife.
Workers at the Tazreen factory, in the Ashulia industrial zone outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, had been sewing T-shirts, jeans, and shorts for, among others, Walmart’s in-house Faded Glory line, Sears, and M.J. Soffe, a seller of apparel licensed by the US Marines. The factory was capable of producing huge volumes of clothing—about a million T-shirts a month. The business of making and exporting ready-made garments—referred to by consultants, Western businessmen, and government types as “RMG” and by everyone in Bangladesh simply as “garments” (as in “before garments, all of these people were farmers”)—began in the 1980s as a tiny industry captained by a class of ambitious small businessmen profiting from, among other local advantages, child labor and an extremely low minimum wage.
But conditions slowly improved over the years. These changes came about, in part, because Western garment buyers like Walmart and Nike were the targets of relentless activist campaigns that vilified “sweatshop conditions.” Companies that relied on such an infrastructure responded by instituting standards meant to eliminate child and slave labor and other overt forms of abuse in factories. In 1992, Walmart began issuing a 12-point “Standards for Suppliers” document, detailing general principles they expected local factories to follow on issues like wages (“suppliers shall fairly compensate”), prison labor (“shall not be tolerated”), and freedom to form unions (suppliers are supposed to respect this right “as long as such groups are legal in their own country”). It also covers safety: “Walmart will not do business with any supplier that provides an unhealthy or hazardous work environment.”
Policies like this last stipulation from Walmart are part of the reason the Tazreen fire became such a massive global news story at the tail end of 2012, and why it has been compared to New York City’s horrific 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire by everyone from the New York Times editorial board to US labor secretary Hilda Solis: It seemed like an anachronistic tragedy that could have only happened in an earlier era, one in which there were no “supplier standards.” The only problem with this narrative, of course—and the thing many mainstream newspapers and other observers have missed—is that it is a fairy tale.
The Tazreen fire wasn’t all that exceptional. Since 2006, 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have been killed in factory fires. Workers who try to form unions are regularly beaten and arrested by government security forces. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) has worked with the government to form a new force called the Industrial Police, accused by human rights groups of harassing and intimidating workers. At least one activist has been abducted and murdered. Riots are common. In the month after Swapna and Mominul escaped Tazreen, at least 17 other fires broke out in garment factories in industrial zones.