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Factory fires bedevil garment industry

By Adam Belz Published: December 27, 2012

When Bangladesh's roughly 5,000 garment factories ramp up production, share work and hire temporary employees, supply chain confusion can be exacerbated, said Kingshuk Sinha, who teaches corporate responsibility at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

“The general dynamic is there's madness,” Sinha said. “People forget the hours, the conditions. You're chasing orders.”

Garment workers in Bangladesh on average make only 24 cents per hour, the Associated Press reported. But for the country's 161 million people, packed into a landmass two-thirds the size of Minnesota, the work is attractive. Factory managers have no problem replacing people, Sinha said.

“Bodies are substitutable,” he said.

The Tazreen blaze broke out two days after Black Friday in the United States. The factory was still under construction and not up to code, the Associated Press reported. The building, which was several stories taller than its permit allowed, had no fire escapes, and employees in upper floors were ordered to keep working until smoke had risen through the stairwells, the New York Times reported.

After it came to light that the factory was working on goods emblazoned with the U.S. Marine Corps logo, several U.S. senators signed a letter asking President Barack Obama to ensure federal work doesn't go to companies like Tazreen's owner, the Tuba Group.

No one has proved that Tazreen workers were sewing clothes for Target at the time of the fire, but Dickies jeans and C&A brand clothing, which Target sells, were recovered from the site, Foxvog said. The owner of the Tazreen factory, Delowar Hussein, did not respond to emails from the Star Tribune.

Also, Li and Fung Ltd., a longtime supplier for Target and Walmart based in Hong Kong, is a Tazreen customer. The Hong Kong firm, one of the gatekeepers to Asia's garment industry, has pledged to help compensate the families of victims of the fire.

In a letter to Target earlier this month, the International Labor Rights Forum and four other groups asked Target to publish its audit reports related to Tazreen Fashions, publicly disclose its full supplier list, submit to independent fire inspections and pay for repairs at supplier factories. The legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which was developed by unions and labor rights organizations, also stipulates that retailers promote unions at Bangladeshi factories.

Two companies - American firm Phillips-Van Heusen and a German chain called Tchibo - have agreed to participate. Phillips-Van Heusen sells the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands.

Target responded last week by describing its standards and efforts to improve fire safety. But the company did not signal it would sign the agreement proposed by labor groups.

Target, like most of its competitors, publishes neither its fire audit reports nor a list of vendors in Bangladesh.

“We use our own internal unannounced audit process and our own auditor,” Deede said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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