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Bangladesh factory fire survivor urges US firms to support safe, fair labor

Sumi Abedin
Sumi Abedin
Sumi Abedin

Sumi Abedin was making 18 cents an hour as a seamstress, putting together garments for Sean “P Diddy” Combs’ clothing line (known as Sean John Clothing) when the factory she worked in located outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, began burning.

“The door was locked and we couldn’t get out,” Abedin said, speaking through translator and Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter. She ended up having to leap from a three-story window, breaking an arm and a leg – and feeling lucky to have survived. More than a hundred did not.

Today, at least 70 garment Bangladeshi workers were reported killed with the collapse of a factory.

Abedin and Akter are in Seattle today as part of a U.S. tour — the End Death Trap Tour, they call it — aimed at urging American corporations and clothing purchasers like Walmart and Gap to support safe, fair working conditions overseas.

The tour is partially sponsored by the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, United Students Against Sweatshops and the International Labor Rights Forum.

Bodies outside the Tazreen factory fire, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Bodies outside the Tazreen factory fire, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Tazreen Fashion factory fire of last November that Abedin survived killed 112 people and set off a wave of protests in Bangladesh.

The tragedy also revealed that many U.S. firms such as Walmart, Sears and Disney had continued to do business with the factory despite clear evidence it was operating under “high risk” conditions that were unsafe for workers.

Bangladesh, with 5,000 such factories and millions of garment industry workers, is second only to China as a global exporter of clothing. The garment industry is seen by many Bangladeshi officials and business leaders as one of the nation’s brightest economic prospects.

Competing largely by supplying low-cost labor, Bangladesh is also seen by many human rights and labor activists as an increasingly dangerous place for workers.  Below, in the video, Abedin describes how she narrowly escaped death:

Abedin and Akter represent many families and workers in Bangladesh seeking $5.7 million in compensation for this tragedy from firms like Walmart.

They are also asking that Walmart, Gap and some of the other major clothing retailers who get their garments made in Bangladesh adopt a fire-safety contract (called the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement) that was created by labor unions and the company, PVH Corp., that owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein clothing.

Walmart, which is especially targeted by the protestors due to its major presence within the Bangladesh garment industry, has not commented on the request for compensation to the survivors and families of killed workers at Tazreen.

Megan Murphy, spokesperson for Walmart, said that the company has established a $1.6 million safety training program in response to this tragedy in Bangladesh. Murphy sent by email a statement, which began:

At Walmart, our goal is to positively impact global supply chain practices by raising our own standards and by partnering with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry.  That’s why we are focused on investing our resources in proactive programs to address fire safety in the garment and textile industry in Bangladesh, and prevent fires before they happen.

Murphy said Walmart has instituted its own program to improve fire safety in Bangladesh and is working with the government there as well to generally improve working conditions within the garment industry.

Akter and Abedin just shake their heads and chuckle, not happily, when asked for a response to Walmart’s efforts and statements.

“It will do nothing for the workers,” Akter said. “The money would not go for worker safety but to management.”

Neither the government or the Bangladesh garment industry will ever have the incentive to increase worker safety if Western buyers only compete on price, she said. Firms like Walmart and Gap, she added, must become part of an industry-wide movement to establish standards that ensure worker safety and fair labor practices.

“Ultimately, these companies must be held responsible for these tragedies if they do not act to prevent them,” Akter said.

Abedin is still disabled from the injuries she suffered after leaping from the factory window. Working as a seamstress is physical labor and she remains unable to operate the equipment. She has a bit of a haunted look, perhaps unable to forget the horrors of the factory fire last fall — or too keenly aware that speaking out for worker rights in Bangladesh can sometimes get you in trouble.

Akter, for example, as been charged with crimes for pursuing her work as a union organizer. Some of her colleagues have suffered far worse.

“All we are asking for is that we have a safe working place, with fair compensation and that the doors be unlocked in case of an emergency,” Abedin said.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.