Dhaka (AsiaNews) - T-shirts with Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, tailored products of the Scottish Edinburgh Woollen Mill, sweaters of the French Teddy Smith: these are some of the products made by, among others, the 112 workers who died in the Tazreen Fashion fire in Bangladesh on November 24. From the day of the fire, the big foreign brands who made their garments in the textile factory are scrambling to "clarify" that over a year ago they terminated their contracts with the Bengali company, because it failed to meet international safety standards. Yet, among the remains of the building, one can easily recognize shorts, shirts and other items sold by Wall-Mart, the giant U.S. retailer and third retailer in the world. Clothes sewn in an eight floor building, with three staircases, with no emergency exits, in poorly ventilated rooms with grates on the windows.
As the hours pass, new details emerge about the incident of the 24th. The fire broke out on the ground floor of the warehouse. The more than 200 workers on the night shift took to the stairs, but the superintendent told them that it was only a test and that therefore they could return to their work. Perhaps, the manager was convinced that he could extinguish the fire, which instead spread quickly. Not being able to access the roof because the top two floors were blocked, the workers found themselves trapped like rats. Some of them managed to rip off the grille of a window: from there, one man was able to jump onto the roof of the factory next door, created a kind of bridge of bamboo canes and tried to help as many colleagues as possible. From that lucky exit, about 200 people managed to escape more or less unscathed. The 112 victims (not 124 as was believed at first) died in the factory or in the crush trying to escape through the window.
That the worker was able to jump on the roof of another building may seem like a scene from an action movie. In reality, it testifies to the system operating behind these factories and to the working conditions. In the industrial zone of Ashulia (on the outskirts of Dhaka), where Tazreen Fashion stood, hundreds of buildings of eight, nine, or twelve stories stand side by side, without even the crucial space to build emergency exits and staircases in accordance with the law. Inside, the situation is even worse: hallways clogged with materials, fabrics and threads; rooms crowded with old machines, with hundreds of people who work 12 hours a day, on day and night shifts.
The average wage of an unskilled worker is a month, about €30. With these figures, those who can share a room with other colleagues manage to survive. Paying the rent for a whole family is impossible. Usually, the workers are young people from rural areas: they send a little money to the village, and hope to get by and find a better job soon. Others are married, but leave their family to the village. Those who come with their wife and children lead a life of extreme poverty, because there is no job security, no health insurance. Paradoxically, it is this very precarious condition that makes it easy to find work in a factory. At the end of each month, there are hundreds of people lined up to join waiting lists. The craft worker's job fluctuates: they work a few months, then they get sick or are too weak to continue, and leave. Others take their place: the people are left unemployed for a short time, meanwhile, the employer always has an available workforce at a low price.
Concerning the fire at Tazreen Fashion, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has declared it arson, and with her also the president of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation. According to them, the perpetrators are foreign competitors, who through local people are trying to sabotage the Bengali industry. For analysts, it is a very likely possibility: after China, Bangladesh is the second largest clothing manufacturer in the world, and in recent years has also given India a run for its money. However, one cannot exclude the possibility that this theory is an attempt to hide the evident and inadequate working conditions in these factories.
Reversing the situation is difficult, because Bangladesh is considered the far west of the textile industry: by foreign firms, who know that they will find cheap labor and no restrictions, or that they will be able to get around them easily by paying a few extra "tips"; and by the local companies seeking to launder money and looking for ways to earn money as quickly as possible. In between, are the people, who need work. The countryside is no longer able to employ a large number of people: the mechanization of the fields is arriving here, too, which means less agricultural labor. And, consequently, a greater need for factories where they can find work.
The situation is critical, but changing it is not impossible. The unions are not a viable way: besides being few in number, the real problem is that by law they are not free and independent, but only an instrument of politics. The difference could be made by the big foreign brands, who buy the Bengali factories' production. Entering into agreements and contracts only with companies that meet the standards of safety and ensure basic rights for workers, would create a more functional market system. Because if a human being is forced to work underpaid for 12 hours a day and almost without food, he will not produce as much as a colleague who receives better wages and works in more dignified conditions.