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Background on factory deaths in Bangladesh

April 17, 2006

April 17, 2006

Liton, 18, has been a garment worker since he was 1. For the last six months he worked at Sayem Fashion.

Liton, 18, has been a garment worker since he was 16. For the last six months he worked at Sayem Fashion.

Shortly before 1:00 a.m. on April 11, 2005 workers in the Spectrum-Sweater factory in Savar, Bangladesh, 30 km northeast of Dhaka, found their workplace suddenly crashing down upon them. Sixty-four people died, at least 74 were wounded, some were handicapped for life, and hundreds were left jobless as a result of the collapse.

Before the collapse workers on several occasions had tried to report concerns regarding the safety of their building, including one worker who saw cracks in the factory wall five days prior to the collapse. But he was told to keep his mouth shut and work.

The factory had been built on top of a flood-prone former swamp. Despite the lack of an adequate foundation, five additional stories had been added to the original four-story structure to accommodate large clothing orders that the factory owners did not want to refuse. To make matter worse, heavy machinery had been placed on the fourth and seventh floors.

Spectrum was in violation not only of its construction permit, but also of many labour laws and code of conduct provisions prior to the collapse, such as violation of the minimum wage and of the legal right to one day a week off.

Not only did local public authorities fail to properly monitor safety at Spectrum Sweater, but the European retailers sourcing from the factory-many of whom claim to have policies and procedures in place to monitor labour practices at their supply facilities-had failed to detect and remediate serious problems at Spectrum.

At the time of the Spectrum tragedy, MSN and our coalition partners in the Ethical Trading Action Group (ETAG) joined with Bangladeshi unions and NGOs, the European Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) in calling on the Bangladesh government, the garment and textile industry associations, and European retailers sourcing from the factory to ensure that injured workers, families of those killed, and the unemployed Spectrum workers received fair compensation, and that manufacturers, retailers and the government seriously addressed the sector-wide health and safety problems in the industry.

MSN and ETAG also called on Canadian companies sourcing garments from Bangladesh to take immediate steps to ensure that the factories they use in Bangladesh were safe workplaces and to express their concerns about this industry-wide problem to the Bangladesh industry associations and government.

In response, the Retail Council of Canada informed its members of our request and conveyed its concerns to the Bangladesh industry associations.

After participating in a mission to Bangladesh, some European retailers, including the Spanish retailer Inditex (Zara) agreed to create a trust fund for the workers. However, only a few of the companies have carried through on all their commitments.

The MFA Forum, a multi-stakeholder initiative involving brands, multi-lateral institutions, labour organizations, and NGOs, including MSN, has also been engaging with the Government of Bangladesh, the industry association and local unions and NGOs on the need for structural safety and health and safety measures to ensure that the Spectrum tragedy is not repeated.

Unfortunately, the growing pressure on the Bangladeshi garment industry for significant improvements in health and safety practices has not yet resulted in major improvements at the factory level. Nor have the victims of the Spectrum tragedy received the full compensation to which they are entitled.

In the past six weeks, there have been a number of similar tragedies in other garment factories producing for European, US and Canadian retailers and brands, in which hundreds of workers have been killed and injured:

Deadly fire at KTS Textiles, February 23, 2006

Deadly fire at KTS Textiles, February 23, 2006

February 23

A fire caused by an electrical short circuit at the KTS Textile Industries factory kills 61 workers (including girls 12, 13, and 14 years old) and injures approximately 100. Locked emergency exits prevent workers form escaping. There was reportedly no health and safety equipment or fire drills at the factory.

February 25

Twenty-two workers are killed and 50 injured when the five-story Phoenix Building collapses following unauthorized renovations to convert the upper stories of the building into a private hospital. The building had housed the Phoenix Garments factory, and one line of the factory was reportedly still running at the time of the disaster.

February 25

Fifty-seven workers are injured when a transformer explodes at the Imam Group building and workers are unable to get out through the narrow exits. The building housed five garment factories.

March 6

Three workers are killed and approximately 50 injured when a fire caused by an electrical short circuit at a building housing Sayem Fashions and two other garment factories provokes a stampede when the workers find their exit route is blocked by boxes.

Two Canadian companies, lingerie retailer La Senza and RD International Style Collections were reportedly having apparel products made at the Sayem Fashions factory at the time of the tragedy.

Because health and safety violations are a sector-wide problem in Bangladesh, MSN believes all Canadian companies whose apparel products are being made in that country must take immediate action to ensure that all the factories they use have safe and healthy working conditions. Canadian companies should also participate in credible multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the MFA Forum, to help create a credible and comprehensive safety program in Bangladesh to ensure that tragedies like Spectrum never happen again.

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