Disasters Made in Bangladesh

Why Poor People Are Still Dying for Our Cheap T-Shirts

By James Pogue

Walmart’s response to the Tazreen fire, and to the harassment of workers and activists by its suppliers, has been to say, essentially, It’s not our problem. The company’s ethical-sourcing system ranks supplier factories with Homeland Security-style grades, on a scale from green to yellow to orange to red. These rankings, which cover basic tenets of safety and assess the quality of life of factory workers, are assigned through audits conducted by subcontracted investigators. At the time of the Tazreen fire, an orange rating meant that the factory in question had to be audited again within six months. If conditions hadn’t improved following the second audit, the factory would earn an additional orange rating, which meant it would be audited yet again within six months. A third orange rating would move the supplier into both the literal and figurative red, meaning Walmart would cease working with the offending factory.

Two days after the Tazreen fire, Walmart representatives issued a statement. “Our thoughts are with the families and the victims of this tragedy,” it read. It then went on, referring to the huge quantities of Walmart garments found in the charred wreckage of the blaze: “The Tazreen factory was not authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies. Today, we have terminated our relationship with our supplier.”

Walmart’s use of the singular in their statement—“a supplier”—is misleading. Documents photographed by Zain and others after the fire indicated that not one but at least three Walmart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory in the months before the fire. It’s true that Walmart terminated its relationship with one supplier affiliated with the Tazreen factory, a New York-based company called Success Apparel, but until recently they had not spoken about any other suppliers. Walmart has declined to state on what grounds Success Apparel was terminated.

It’s known that Tazreen received two audits and an orange rating. But it’s not clear whether or not it received a third full audit. When I asked a Walmart representative, Kevin Gardner, whether they had released any comment explicitly stating that the Tazreen factory had been placed on the red list, he declined to answer. After repeated requests, Walmart has refused to say when, exactly, this would have happened or how Tarzeen’s red-list status would be enforced. When I asked how the factory could have even been placed on the red list without ever having received a third audit, he also declined to answer.

The audits, it must be noted, did not take into account safety precautions like fire exits or smoke-proof stairwells; the system leaves code violations to be policed by local government officials. So it’s unclear who, exactly, would have ever been in a position to prevent a disaster like Tazreen. The American and European buyers have created an infrastructure in which the Bangladeshi factories they work with are treated as distant subcontractors; in the eyes of Walmart, it’s far beyond the company’s responsibility to take direct action on, say, installing fire exits. 

Apparently, the financial burden of providing safe working conditions and paying fair wages is something that Western buyers and governments expect contracted local producers to implement on their own. But as Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, explained to me, if the governments ostensibly tasked with overseeing these conditions allow workers to unionize, and if the producers attempt to improve the conditions that have allowed hundreds of workers to die in fires in just the past few years, the buyers will inevitably have to pay—whether up-front or in higher prices demanded by the hired manufacturers. “But the brands don’t want to do anything because the main reason they’re in Bangladesh in the first place is to slash costs,” Scott added. 

This sentiment was espoused by a Walmart representative at a meeting in 2011, called in response to two deadly fires that razed factories in Bangladeshi industrial zones. Representatives from the government, activist groups, and manufacturers had convened at the BGMEA’s headquarters in Dhaka and at one point discussed a draft proposal that would have instituted some relatively minor binding standards for fire safety in local factories. “The Walmart representative stood up,” Scott, who attended the meeting, told me. “First, he acknowledged that there were safety issues to be addressed. Then he said that there was no way Walmart was going to pay for it.” In short, no industry-wide standards had a chance of being implemented from the top down. 

If the Tazreen fire could have been prevented by safety measures that should have been implemented but were instead overlooked, the ensuing response demonstrates how hard it is to pin responsibility on the offending parties involved in the production of garments in Bangladesh and, presumably, elsewhere. Government inspectors visited Tazreen in the weeks before the fire, and in theory they were supposed to have flagged safety risks, such as the lack of smoke-proof stairwells; however, the government-backed investigative committee’s major postmortem findings focused on the possibility that the fire had been an act of industrial sabotage. Even if this is true, it offers no excuse for the lack of fundamental safety precautions that should have, according to the policies of the Western contractors, been taken by the factory owners long ago. Buyers like Walmart and Sears refuse to accept responsibility—they say they didn’t even know they were buying from Tazreen in the first place. Delowar Hossain, managing director of the Tuba Group, Tazreen’s parent company, still hasn’t been prosecuted, as the government’s committee recommended, for “unpardonable negligence.” In fact, the only people who have been charged with anything are three middle managers—the men accused of instructing their employees to ignore the alarms and work through them on the day of the fire. Finding a responsible party was not made easier by the fact that hours after the fire the factory’s computers were found smashed, their hard drives missing.

On January 26, a few days before this piece was scheduled to go to press, a fire broke out at the Smart Export garment factory in Dhaka. Seven workers perished in the blaze. No firefighting equipment was found on the scene, and one factory exit was reported by local newspapers to have been left locked, forcing workers to break windows and jump, just like in Tazreen.

On the factory floor at Smart Export, Zain found clothes produced for a brand called Lefties, which is owned by the Spanish conglomerate Inditex. An auditing officer who works for Inditex provided Zain with this quote, which illustrates just how easy it is to deny responsibility in the dissociated outsourcing system Western buyers have created: “This is a dump where no self-respecting brand would place an order.” 

Walmart, for their part, have updated their standards and warned suppliers against buying from unauthorized factories. But the fundamental system of a voluntary, company-enforced (or unenforced, as the case may be) set of safety regulations remains in place.