But those gains have not come without cost. Manufacturers have bitterly resisted efforts to organize workers – and safe working conditions have been a focus for would-be unionizers. In April, a leading labour-rights activist, Aminul Islam, was found brutally murdered; he had previously been detained and tortured by police and national security agents.
The country relies on low wages and operating costs to continue to attract international brands such as H&M and Target; angry workers have repeatedly clashed with police in recent months. The current minimum wage is about $40 a month.
NTD Apparel Inc., a Montreal-based apparel firm, stopped importing from the Tuba Group’s Tazreen factory earlier this year because the company failed an audit.
“We had ethical-sourcing protocols that needed to be followed … and they didn’t satisfy our needs,” said Andrew Hattem, senior vice-president for the firm.
He would not be specific. However, the company says its suppliers have to follow a code of conduct and comply with labour laws, as well as those regarding worker safety and environmental standards.
NTD regularly sources garments from other factories in Bangladesh.
In May, 2011, the factory that burned received an initial “orange” rating by Wal-Mart after a safety audit – after three such ratings in two years, Wal-Mart stops ordering from a producer for at least a year. The company had also been slammed for poor safety standards at two other factories in a March, 2011, audit shared on the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, and for failing to pay minimum wage and blocking exits, aisles and stairwells by NTD Apparel Inc., in January, 2011.
Fires, in the hulking, poorly ventilated concrete buildings that house the garment factories, are a frequent occurrence; workers joke grimly about preferring jobs that post them near the scarce windows because then at least they might have the chance to jump.
A fire shut down another Dhaka garment factory on Monday; no one died in that blaze, which erupted even as angry garment workers were protesting safety standards nearby.
International ethical trade organizations have pressured the factories – many of which are owned by foreign investors, most from East Asia – to improve safety standards, and some improvements have been made. However, the government – eager to hold on to the inflow of foreign currency– has done little to push enforcement, and almost all the safety auditing is carried out by firms such as Wal-Mart, for which Tuba Group is a major supplier.
Siddiqur Rahman, vice-president of the manufacturer’s association, insisted Mr. Hossain and the Tuba Group had no culpability in the fire, which he said was an accident. “He has three factories, he cannot stay at one all the time [to make sure all instructions are followed],” he said of Mr. Hossain, before adding that he personally had visited a number of survivors in hospitals, none of whom told him doors and stairwells had been locked or blocked.
He said the Tazreen factory last conducted a fire drill on November 5; until a full investigation is made it is impossible to say why so many workers died if safety procedures were being followed, but he speculated that the problem may have been that the ground floor was being used as a warehouse for highly flammable yarn. “There were more than 1,400 workers and when they came down from the fourth or fifth floor, they were late,” he said.
He said he had been speaking frequently since the fire with Mr. Hossain, who had cut no corners on worker safety. “Nobody likes [a fire],” he said. “Who is losing? The owner. I understand a lot of people died but the owner will be finished.”
With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Agence France-Presse
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated Wal-Mart's policy on safety audits for suppliers. This version has been corrected.
A brief history of Bangladesh’s garment industry