From A World to Win News Service

Bangladesh workers burned alive in death-trap garment factory

December 9, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


November 26, 2012. A World to Win News Service. On November 24, 121 garment workers died and at least 200 were injured in a fire that spread rapidly throughout the Tazreen Fashions factory in Ashulia, an industrial suburb outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition. Thousands of people flocked to the factory frantically looking for their relatives. Sabina Yasmine, a worker from a nearby factory, found the body of her daughter-in-law. Her son was still missing. ''Where is my son?'' she cried out. ''I want the factory owner to be hanged. For him many have died, many have gone.'' (Associated Press, November 24, 2012) Tazreen's clients include clothing retail giants from the U.S., Europe and Canada.

An electrical shortcircuit seems to have been the cause of the fire. This has been the reason for many other industrial fires, whether the factory building is a more modern one like Tazreen Fashion or an older construction in the heart of congested Dhaka. At Tazreen, there were no outside escape routes, such as exterior fire escapes, even though the building was nine floors high. There were ground floor fire exits, but they were locked.

Rooms full of female workers were cut off from any possible escape. Piles of yarn and fabric filled the corridors, igniting quickly, and the flames rapidly spread to other floors. Witnesses tell how many workers leapt from upper stories to escape the flames. Twelve workers died in the hospital from injuries sustained in falls.

Relatives of the factory's workers gathered at the scene, desperate for news about their loved ones. Thousands of other workers and residents of Ashulia forced the closure of other factories, and blocked a major highway, halting transport between Dhaka and the port city of Chittagong for more than four hours.

The demands were the same as raised after the many previous factory fires—that those responsible for this latest disaster be punished, that working conditions be improved and that the government enforce protective laws gained through earlier workers' struggles. Despite promises made to punish those responsible for these intolerable conditions, the government uses the police exclusively against the workers. As if to prove a point, two days after this tragic fire, another factory fire broke out. This time there was no loss of life, but it was like rubbing salt in an already deep wound for the people.

Delwar Hossain, the owner of Tazreen Fashions—and seven factories in all—denied allegations that the building was unsafe to work in. But according to the Clean Clothes Campaign (, more than 80 percent of all factory fires in Bangladesh are due to faulty electrical wiring. Regarding this recent fire, they report that proper fire drills were not carried out, that the exits were blocked, that the workplace was not properly supervised and that the company only had a permit to work in the lower floors.

Tazreen is part of the larger Tuba Group, which makes apparel for top global retailers such as Carrefour, Walmart, H&M, Tesco, IKEA, C&A, Gap, and Sainsburys. Bangladesh is already the largest producer of T-shirts in the world and its garment industry is still expanding.

The Tazreen fire has been called Bangladesh's worst factory disaster ever, but in fact these kinds of catastrophes are common occurrences. About 600 workers have been killed in fires since 2006, not counting this most recent one. In December 2011, 29 workers died in a factory fire at That's It Sportswear, a Gap supplier. Many fell to their deaths from the upper floors of the building because doors to a locked stairway barred their escape. In June 2012, 116 workers were burned to death in a factory when a storeroom full of chemicals blew up and flames shot into the air. Windows covered by grills forced people through the only way out, the front door that was engorged in flames. In early 2012, more than 300 factories near the capital were shut down for almost a week as workers demanded a shorter work week, higher wages and better conditions.

In May of this year, textile workers shut down 200 factories over the disappearance of Aminul Islam, a well-respected trade union leader. His body was later found with his knees smashed, his toes broken and a hole drilled in one knee. Constantly harassed, he had already been beaten by known intelligence agents, who warned him that his activism around workers' conditions interfered with Bangladesh's economic interests. On the day he disappeared he had been trying to resolve a dispute between factory owners and workers who stitched shirts for Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. Human rights groups have accused law enforcement agencies of his murder. The deliberately gruesome manner of his death can only be understood as an attempt to terrify those who would protest.

While there are few, if any, high-end fashion shops in Dhaka, one can say that Bangladesh has become a center for the production side of fashion for the U.S. and Europe, second only to China. Two million workers, mainly women, are employed in the country's 4,500 garment factories.

Dhaka has the highest population density of any city in the world. Reporting from Dhaka for Al Jazeera (October 3, 2012), Nicolas Haque says every three minutes a rural family moves to the capital, making it the world's fastest growing city. People from rural areas come in search of jobs and a better life in the face of increasingly difficult conditions in the countryside. The slums around Dhaka have swollen; new arrivals search for jobs in the garment industry.

Among the lowest paid in the world, Dhaka's garment workers sometimes earn less than a dollar a day, barely keeping their families alive. The government's minimum entry wage is $37 a month. Protests over low wages and poor work conditions are a recurrent feature of the industry.

But the government is notorious for not implementing the law, promising reform after intense factory strikes but always taking the side of the employers. The garment sector employs 40 percent of the country's industrial workforce and is the mainstay of its economy. The government very often employs brute force to quell unrest in an effort to pacify buyers—some of the world's top brands—who are concerned over delayed shipments. The police have a well-deserved reputation for brutality in the service of powerful interests.

The big brands go to Bangladesh because they are in intense competition with each other to produce at the lowest possible cost to gain market share and reap the highest possible profit. They would probably argue, and rightly so, that given the workings of the capitalist system they can't afford not to "outsource" in Bangladesh, no matter what the human cost. Companies crush other companies that can't cut their costs, and any company that doesn't make an acceptable rate of profit is going to see capital go elsewhere. The situation in Bangladesh is ideal for Carrefour, Walmart and the rest exactly because of its millions of people living at a subsistence level, desperately trying to feed their families, desperately looking for work.

Further, some benefits from the intense exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh trickle down to ordinary people in the West, making it possible for them to buy reasonably priced clothing. And it allows the flourishing of a small group of Bangladeshi capitalists who together with other reactionary exploiter classes use their state to run the country in the interests of their global backers.

It's a perfect fit for globalized capitalism, a system which is driven and can only be driven by a relentless search for profit. And until that economic system has been overthrown, there will always be factory fires and every other kind of avoidable catastrophes.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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