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labor 8 Killed in Bangladesh Garment Factory Fire, Protests Grow

Eight people were killed when a fire swept through a clothing factory in Bangladesh on Wednesday, as the death toll from the collapse of another factory building two weeks ago climbed above 900. Meanwhile, multinational corporations are coming under growing scrutiny and facing mounting protests over their involvement in the exploitation of Bangladeshi workers. One U.S. union is targeting Gap, Inc.

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Bangladesh factory fire kills 8 - Collapse toll tops 900

Bangladesh's Powerful Garment Sector Fends Off Regulation

Benetton CEO Confirms Company's Tie To Tragedy

Union Protests to Target Gap over Bangladesh Worker Safety

Bangladesh factory fire kills 8; collapse toll tops 900

By Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul

May 9, 2013

Reuters

Eight people were killed when a fire swept through a clothing factory in Bangladesh, police and an industry association official said on Thursday, as the death toll from the collapse of another factory building two weeks ago climbed above 900.

The fire, in an industrial district of Dhaka, comes amid global attention on safety standards in Bangladesh's booming garment industry following the catastrophic collapse of Rana Plaza, on the outskirts of the city, in the world's deadliest industrial accident since the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984.

"It is not clear to us how the accident happened, but we are trying to find out the cause," Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told Reuters.

On Wednesday the Bangladesh government said it had shut down 18 garment factories for safety reasons following the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, which housed five garment factories making clothes for Western brands. Six were cleared to re-open on Thursday after inspectors issued safety certificates.

Salvage teams were still pulling bodies from the rubble of the Rana Plaza complex in Savar, around 20 miles northwest of Dhaka, and on Thursday a spokesman at the army control room coordinating the operation said the number of people confirmed to have been killed had reached 912.

Roughly 2,500 people were rescued from the building, including many injured, but there is no official estimate of the numbers still missing.

The government has blamed the owners and builders of the eight-storey complex for using shoddy building materials, including substandard rods, bricks and cement, and not obtaining the necessary clearances.

Bangladesh's garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the poor South Asian country's exports, has seen a series of deadly accidents, including a fire in November that killed 112 people.

The latest fire, in an 11-storey building in the Mirpur industrial district, broke out at a factory belonging to the Tung Hai Group, a large garment exporter.

"The factory was closed and all the workers had left the premises an hour earlier," said fire service official Bhazan Sarker.

A fire service official and BGMEA president Islam said the Bangladeshi managing director of the company and a senior police officer were among the dead. The others killed were friends and personal staff of the factory boss, officials said.

Tung Hai Group says on its website that it has more than 1,000 employees and its customers include major Western retailers including Britain's Primark, and Inditex Group of Spain. It makes products including cardigans, jumpers and pyjamas.

A spokesman for Inditex said it had last placed an order with the factory in 2011. "But then we stopped ordering because the factory did not meet the standards we demand from our providers", he said.

(Editing by Matthew Green and Alex Richardson)

Bangladesh's Powerful Garment Sector Fends Off Regulation

by Jim Zarroli

May 9, 2013

National Public Radio

Eight people died Wednesday in a fire at a Bangladeshi sweater factory. This follows the much deadlier collapse of the Rana Plaza building, where more than 900 people died.

The deaths are taking place in a garment sector that has seen explosive growth over the past three decades. The country has managed to lure clothing-makers through a combination of low wages and light regulation.

As a manufacturing center, Bangladesh has little to recommend it. The roads are poor. There's no port to speak of. The electricity is notoriously unreliable. It's politically unstable.

The Lure Of Low Wages

And yet Bangladesh has become the world's second-biggest exporter of clothing, employing almost 4 million people. Clothing companies from all over North America and Europe manufacture in the country. Without question, a big part of the reason for its success is low wages, says Doug Miller, author of the book Last Nightshift in Savar.

"It's — with one or two exceptions — one of the lowest if not the lowest labor costs in the world," he says. "You're talking less than $40 a month."

Those wages have become especially attractive to clothing companies, now that pay is rising in China.

But cheap labor is only part of the reason for Bangladesh's growth as a garment center.

Industry's Origins In Textile Quotas

Mushfiq Mobarak, associate professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, says that in 1980 the United States had textile quotas — countries could export only so much clothing into the U.S. Mobarak says South Korea and Taiwan had already filled their quotas, so to get around them companies from those countries began opening factories in Bangladesh.

"You can trace back the history of the sector to exactly those employees who were hired by the South Koreans," Mobarak says. "They learned how to do this and subsequently they started up their own factories."

Today there is a vast network of some 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. Far more than any other low-wage country, it can churn out clothing quickly and cheaply. And companies there have largely succeeded in fending off unionization efforts.

But as clothing prices around the world have dropped, these factories have been under intense competitive pressure. of the International Labor Rights Forum says the pressure probably contributed to the tragedy at Rana Plaza.

"If those factories would have been able to call the brands and say, 'We have a crack in the building; we need to shut down,' I'm sure the brands would have said yes. But at the moment the way things are structured those factories can't do that because if they do that they'll lose the next order," Gearhart says.

Fending Off Safety Enforcement

Bangladesh has plenty of laws on its books to prevent tragedies like Rana Plaza. Mobarak says the powerful garment industry has been able to fend off attempts to enforce those laws.

"Many of the garment factory owners are also the politicians, which means that given that they are politically connected that's going to make it even harder for the government to crack down," Gearhart says.

All this has made for a combustible mix of competitive pressure and corner-cutting. But the tragedy of Rana Plaza has reverberated around the world, and there are already signs that clothing companies are about doing business in the country. That may end up forcing Bangladesh's garment industry to reform itself — something it has resisted until now.

In First Interview Since Bangladesh Factory Collapse, Benetton CEO Confirms Company's Tie To Tragedy

Kim Bhasin

May 8, 2013

Huffington Post

In his first interview since the deadly collapse of a garment factory complex in Bangladesh, the chief executive officer of Benetton told The Huffington Post that his company had purchased small quantities of shirts from a manufacturer that operated inside the plant.

Chief executive Biagio Chiarolanza said Benetton bought the shirts from a company called New Wave Style, which operated one of the several garment factories inside the Rana Plaza building. The collapse of the building in an industrial suburb of Dhaka last month took the lives of more than 800 people.

“The New Wave company, at the time of the tragic disaster, was not one of our suppliers, but one of our direct Indian suppliers had subcontracted two orders,” said Chiarolanza, speaking via phone from Italy, where Benetton is based.

One of Benetton’s suppliers in India had issues fulfilling orders, and offered the option to relocate a portion of its work to several manufacturers located in Bangladesh, according to a Benetton executive who spoke on condition he not be named. New Wave was one of those manufacturers.

Benetton decided to stop production with New Wave one month before the deadly collapse occurred, due to the manufacturer's inability to meet “strict” quality and efficiency standards, Chiarolanza said.

Chiarolanza, a 20-year Benetton veteran who became CEO in 2010 after spending seven years as head of operations, said his company plans to continue to use factories in Bangladesh to manufacture its wares, asserting that the welfare of workers in poor countries is best served by providing jobs.

"It's not the solution to go outside from Bangladesh or to think in the future we can leave Bangladesh," said Chiarolanza. "I spent some period of my life in this part of the world, and I believe -- I really believe -- Benetton and other international brands can help these countries improve their condition. But we need a safe and happy working environment and we need to have better conditions."

He emphasized that Benetton’s orders from New Wave were relatively small, totaling around 200,000 shirts, and were issued in December 2012 and January 2013. Chiarolanza's account confirmed documents previously obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

The shirts were made inside the Rana Plaza building, shipped to the supplier in India and then distributed through Benetton’s "entire distribution network," Chiarolanza said, though he didn't disclose the locations of retail outlets where the clothing eventually landed on shelves.

His explanation came as an attempt to clarify Benetton’s connection to the Rana Plaza disaster in the face of confusion and considerable criticism from labor groups, who have accused the brand of profiting at the expense of low-wage workers in poor countries. For a company that has marketed itself with the slogan “United Colors of Benetton” -- a seeming nod to multiculturalism -- the association of its brand with unsafe sweatshops has been particularly uncomfortable.

In its first statement following the collapse, the company claimed that "none of the companies involved are suppliers to Benetton Group or any of its brands." On April 29, as photos from the Associated Press revealed Benetton labels amid the rubble, Benetton acknowledged it had placed a "one-time order" from a manufacturer in the building. The following day, the company said one of its suppliers had "occasionally subcontracted" orders from a shirt-maker at Rana Plaza.

Benetton blamed the confusion on the complexity of its supply chain. The company operates in 120 countries across the globe and works with 700 manufacturers, and suppliers often subcontract work when necessary. It took time to go through all the records and come across the orders made from the Rana Plaza factory, the company claimed.

Chiarolanza's account effectively enhances the image of an enterprise so huge that no one could possibly keep tabs on all of the hands that touch its product -- some of them operating in unsafe conditions beyond the scrutiny of regulators.

According to the Benetton executive, the company commissioned an assessment of New Wave prior to placing its order. That assessment included checks on the manufacturer's ability to meet quality standards and fulfill the order on time, and it looked at issues related to working conditions and safety. Benetton requires that all of its manufacturers sign a code of conduct addressing myriad issues of concern, from child labor to discrimination in hiring and firing practices, he said.

However, the Benetton executive added that the company never conducted a so-called social audit of New Wave -- essentially, a deeper look at the manufacturer's labor conditions and workplace safety -- because Benetton had worked with the supplier for a very short period of time.

The Rana Plaza disaster has renewed the focus of labor groups on the process of social audits, with critics portraying the measures as little more than public relations devices: Companies effectively check off a box that such audits have been conducted without mounting genuine probes aimed at turning up trouble.

Spanish apparel retailer Mango, which had planned to buy samples from one of the contractors at Rana Plaza, confirmed in a statement to The Huffington Post that it had not conducted a social audit either, because it did not yet have a "commercial relationship" with the factory. The company noted that it wouldn't have been able to identify the building's structural problems regardless.

Benetton claims it didn't know the factory building was constructed without appropriate safety permits. According to the company, documentation provided by local government agencies showed no signs of foul play or incorrect building permits there. All the information given to Benetton was completely "in line," the company said.

Chiarolanza said the tragedy has prompted Benetton to add "additional items" to its assessment process: Going forward assessments will more intently examine the structural integrity of the buildings where its products are made.

Between 2 and 4 percent of Benetton’s products are made in factories in Bangladesh, according to the company. Benetton directly manages about half of this production, while relying on outside suppliers -- mostly in China -- for the rest.

Among the reasons Chiarolanza cited for opting to remain in Bangladesh is a need to maintain operations in multiple regions, giving Benetton the capability to quickly produce and deliver products to retail outlets worldwide.

Other countries, such as Laos and Egypt, offer very cheap labor, Chiarolanza said. But Bangladesh presents the best place to make T-shirts and other simple items that are shipped off to large Asian markets nearby, such as China.

"In Tunisia, where we have a direct company-owned factory, we can produce more or less at the same cost," Chiarolanza said. "It's better to divide the production in some countries and factories, so we're nearer to, for example, Asian markets, so we can deliver directly."

Benetton is in talks with the International Labour Organization, which brings together producers, trade unions and NGOs in an attempt to get all stakeholders on board with change in the apparel manufacturing industry, including in Bangladesh. "I can assure everyone that Benetton has always paid special attention to the workers condition, and the environment in which they operate. I believe our long-standing commitment to social issues speaks for itself," said Chiarolanza.

But labor activists remain skeptical of Benetton's commitment to aiding the workers of Bangladesh. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent organization that monitors labor rights, demanded more than promises.

"If Benetton is serious about preventing future accidents, they will sign a binding, enforceable agreement that requires them to pay for the repairs and renovations needed to make their factories safe," said Nova. "They have made no such commitment and given their track record of public dissembling since the collapse, people can be forgiven for not taking them at their word."

Benetton affirmed its stance on wages in Bangladesh: a low wage is better than no wage at all. Chiarolanza argued the wages provide an opportunity for advancement, particularly for women, since the vast majority of workers in garment factories are female. Nova, though, doesn't accept the status quo in the poverty-stricken nation.

"The wages in Bangladesh are an act of cruelty," he said. "Women cannot support their families on $40 a month. Yes, unemployment is worse, but that is no justification for paying sub-poverty wages that are half of the wages in the next lowest-cost country."

Union Protests to Target Gap over Bangladesh Worker Safety

By Matthew Mosk and Brian Ross

May 9, 2013

ABC News

A leading American labor union is throwing its weight behind public protests against Gap Inc. planned for this weekend in what the union's leader said is an "opening salvo" in the battle against dangerous working conditions in Bangladesh.

The announcement from Noel Beasley, President of the SEIU affiliate Workers United, came as the death toll of garment workers from last week's massive building collapse near Bangladesh's capital Dhaka continued to rise, now estimated to be more than 900.

Gap clothing was not discovered in the collapse, but the popular brand is one of the largest American retailers producing clothing in Bangladesh and its products were found in a fire there two and a half years ago that killed 29 workers.

"Gap Inc. takes our commitment to improving working conditions in Bangladesh seriously, and we have taken action where we can make a direct impact," the company said in a statement emailed to ABC News. "Gap Inc. implemented last October a four-point plan that includes up to $22 million in assistance to workers and to improve fire safety at the selected factories that produce our products. In fact, we have independent fire inspectors working in Bangladesh right now who have identified improvements that can be made at the factories with which we work."

Labor organizers said they believe the Gap plan falls short.

"Someone at first glance who is not familiar with building and safety code issues might think it looks decent," Foxvog said. "But it's non-transparent, non-binding."

Unlike such major brands as H&M, Nike and Adidas, she said, Gap's plan does not identify factories in Bangladesh where the company does business.

Foxvog also criticized the plan for failing to make public any safety problems its inspectors discover, saying it could leave workers in the dark about the dangers they are facing. It also does not enable outsiders to verify that Gap is taking concrete steps to put in place even basic safety precautions such as enclosed stairwells, unlocked exits and fire escapes, she said.

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