a labor organizer with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. She started work in garment factories when she was 12 years old. Now she campaigns for better wages, recognition of the right to organize and higher safety standards.
executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which investigates working conditions in factories around the world.
The Bangladeshi government has declared a period of national mourning for more than 120 garment workers who died in a fire at a factory that supplied U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart, among others. Joining us from Bangladesh is labor activist Kalpona Akter, who has visited the factory and took pictures of the charred clothing labels she found there — including the Wal-Mart brand, Faded Glory. She started work in garment factories when she was 12 years old. Now she campaigns for better wages, recognition of the right to organize, and higher safety standards. We are also joined by Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which investigates working conditions in factories around the world. In comparison to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, Nova says, "It really is an extraordinary achievement, in an ironic sense, that the U.S. apparel industry has managed to replicate early 20th century conditions, that were so brutal and cruel to workers, now again here in 2012 in factories in places like Bangladesh. It’s a shameful record for the U.S. apparel industry. ... And hopefully, this horror will finally galvanize a global push for genuine reform of the labor practices of the big apparel brands and retailers." Akter speaks directly to shoppers, saying, "Consumers can play a big role, because they are the most powerful player in the supply chain." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Bangladesh, where the government has declared a period of national mourning for more than 120 garment workers who died in a fire at a factory supplying U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart, among others. The fire broke out Saturday evening at a garment factory in the suburbs of the capital Dhaka as its mostly women employees worked overtime to meet holiday rush orders for overseas customers. Survivors said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work, and that when the fire alarm went off, their bosses ordered them to stay at their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits or fire escapes.
Meanwhile, a second fire broke out in a separate garment factory in Dhaka, though no deaths were reported. Thousands of a garment workers have taken to the streets over the past two days to protest their unsafe conditions and demand justice. Survivors of the fire were among them.
PARUL BEGUM: [translated] How the factory fire caught, I don’t know that. But when we heard "Fire!" we all rushed and were trying to get out of the factory. The factory worker broke a window, and one of the workers pulled me through the window. Immediately after the fire broke, we tried to run out, but the door was locked. When the floor became dark because of smoke, the boys rescued me.
NILMA: [translated] When the building caught fire, I didn’t know, and many of us didn’t know, because soon after the fire, the total floor was full of smoke, and we couldn’t see anything then. And there was a chamber. We ran there, and all the workers broke the windows of the chamber, and we all could get out through that window.
AMY GOODMAN: The protests follow a work stoppage earlier this year, when 300 factories in Bangladesh shut down for almost a week over demands for higher wages and better conditions. Fire officials in the country say more than 500 workers there have died in clothing factory accidents since 2006.
Bangladesh is the main supplier of garments for Wal-Mart. At first, the company said it could not confirm whether it was still doing business with the Tazreen factory that caught fire. But it later confirmed a subcontractor had in fact placed orders there.
Well, our guest now has visited the factory and took pictures of the charred clothing labels she found there, including the Wal-Mart brand Faded Glory. Kalpona Akter is a labor organizer with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. She started work in garment factories when she was 12. Now she campaigns for better wages, recognition of the right to organize, and higher safety standards. She was imprisoned for more than a month in 2010 and still faces criminal charges. Kalpona Akter joins us by Democracy Now! video stream in Dhaka.
We’re also joined in Washington, D.C., by Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which investigates working conditions in factories around the world. He’s back with us today.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kalpona Akter, you took pictures inside the burned Tazreen factory that showed some of the clothing labels found there, including the Wal-Mart brand Faded Glory. Now, Wal-Mart at first said it could not confirm its relationship with the factory. But on Monday, it issued a statement confirming it was a supplier. The statement said, quote, the Tazreen factory "was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier contracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies," unquote. Wal-Mart did not say when the supplier was removed from its list on approved facilities. Kalpona Akter, you got into this charred factory. Talk about what you found, and then talk about your response to what Wal-Mart said.
KALPONA AKTER: Thank you. Yeah, I had a chance to go inside the factory after it is fully burned. When I got into the factory, it just shocked me when I saw that in the downstairs there is a piling of yarn and fabrics, which is totally burned. And I shocked because they have these stairs, and all those ended in that store. So, literally, as workers stated, that they heard about fire alarm, and they tried to evacuate from the factory, but they couldn’t go out because of the fire in the stairs. So, this is first shocking me.
Then I went to the production floor to see how it is, and it surprised me when I found these international brands like Faded Glory, which is one of the Wal-Mart label. I found C&A label in the production floor. I found ENYCE. And I found documents of KiK. I found document of Karl Rieker. I found Li & Fung in this—Li & Fung in this factory. So it is really, really surprised me, because these—all these brands, they say that they are complianced, but I really don’t know what they mean by "compliance." They may mean that compliance means they—all the documentation, not in the factories.
This is really give me a sense when I saw the factory garment floor, first floor, top floor—I mean all the floors. At least three floor, I found that door has been locked after the floors burned. So, literally, these workers were trapped when they were trying to get out from the factory after they saw the factory caught fire.
And after hearing the reaction of Wal-Mart, that they are cutting out—cutting and running from this factory, it is surprised me. You know, when this factory was producing them, I don’t believe that they not have that information, that Tazreen factory is making clothes for Wal-Mart. Definitely they had that information. And second, now, after burning and, you know, 112 or 120 workers dead, they cannot just wash their hands and say that, "OK, we will not do any business with them." They have to be with this factory and improve the safety standards in that factory. That is our demand. And they have to pay the compensation to these workers also, because they were buying clothes from this factory.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, what is your response to Wal-Mart saying they have cut their ties with this factory?
KALPONA AKTER: Yes, Wal-Mart just cannot say that they will just go now and they didn’t know that, that this factory was producing for them. You know, this is our response to the Wal-Mart, our reaction to the Wal-Mart. They cannot just clean their hand and say that we are just cutting and running. They have to stay with this factory, and they have to ensure the safety—improving the safety standards in all the factories they are sourcing from Bangladesh.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a part from the Wal-Mart website section on the company’s ethical sourcing for its garment suppliers. It says, quote, "We visited our supplier factories ... in Bangladesh to phase their production out of buildings identified as high risk for fire safety hazards. In 2011, we ceased working with 49 factories in Bangladesh due to fire safety issues. In February 2011, we organized a supply chain meeting, in collaboration with other brands and retailers focused on fire safety, which was attended by 160 suppliers. Through our participation in the Bangladesh Buyers Forum, we worked with other retailers and brands to create fire safety training films and training materials," end-quote. What more should Wal-Mart be doing to ensure worker safety at its supply factories, Kalpona?
KALPONA AKTER: OK, OK, considering seeing these fires in these factories, I would say that whatever they said in their website, they are doing that as a documentation, not in the factories. OK, the Wal-Mart should do more on that. Whatever they’re saying in their website in terms of the safety-ness, they have to start the practice in these factories. That, they need to do it immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, and then Kalpona Akter, we’d like to ask you to stay with us. We know you have been charged, and want to find out why you face criminal charges. And we’re also going to be joined by Scott Nova, who is working on the issue of garment workers in Bangladesh and the large companies they subcontract with, like Wal-Mart. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we deal with, today, one of the largest industrial accidents in Bangladeshi history, the fire that took the lives of at least 120 workers this weekend. Among the clothing they were making were the brand for Wal-Mart called Faded Glory. Kalpona Akter is with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. She got into the factory after it was burned and took pictures of those labels for Wal-Mart. Scott Nova is with us right now, back from yesterday, now in Washington with the Worker Rights Consortium.
Scott, can you put this into a larger context? And also talk about the danger that Kalpona Akter faces as she takes on the dangers of the garment industry in Bangladesh.
SCOTT NOVA: Well, the central concern is that Bangladesh is now the second-largest producer of apparel in the world, and it got to that position by giving—
AMY GOODMAN: After China.
SCOTT NOVA: After China—by giving retailers like Wal-Mart exactly what they want, which is the cheapest labor costs in the world. And they achieve those low labor costs by paying minimum wages of 18 to 20 cents an hour and by completely ignoring fundamental worker safety protections. As a result, you have a massive industry with more than three million workers that is defined by sub-poverty wages and extreme dangers for workers inside the workplace.
The fundamental change that is necessary here is for buyers like Wal-Mart to be willing to pay a price to the factories for the clothing, sufficient to make it possible for the factories to produce in a safe and responsible manner. And yet, Wal-Mart and the others refuse to increase the prices they pay to the factories to make it possible for them to operate safely.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to what Wal-Mart has said, that they have cut ties with this factory, that they didn’t realize they were using it? What is their history with the Tazreen factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh?
SCOTT NOVA: There’s an enormous contradiction here, because Wal-Mart is a company whose foundational corporate principle is cost reduction through absolute control over supply chain logistics and production information, and yet now they want us to believe that they have so little control over their supply chain that they have no idea which factories are actually making their clothing. To say the least, it’s strange credulity. The bottom line is that Wal-Mart goods, as they’ve now admitted, were being produced in this factory, and Wal-Mart is responsible for protecting the rights and the safety of the workers who make its clothing.
AMY GOODMAN: And Kalpona Akter, why do you face criminal charges?
KALPONA AKTER: We are facing criminal charges—me and my colleagues are facing charges because we are raising the voice for better wage for our workers, because, you know, our workers in Bangladesh, who are making clothes for Western brands, they are getting $37 as a minimum wage per month, which is not enough for their half-month costs even. So we are supporting workers’ voice to having a decent living wage for them. And this is one of the reasons that why we are facing all these criminal charges.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the death of your colleague, Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi labor activist, like yourself, who helped expose working conditions in the garment industry. His body, found in April, showed signs of torture. Two years before this, he had also been arrested and tortured by police and intelligence services for protesting low wages. Can you talk about the work he did and the retaliation that organizers face, like yourself?
KALPONA AKTER: Aminul—Aminul Islam was—I’m really proud to be working with him. He was an incredible, great organizer, who was—you know, he was working at the Savar industrial belt, which is most of factory located in the Dhaka periphery. And he was in a front-liner—organizer in the field, who was organizing workers to raise their voices, join with union, and also supported their voice to have a decent living wage for them and decent wage for them to survive. So, Aminul became the enemy of this industry or all the security intelligence, when he was supporting workers’ voices, when he was supporting or helping with their grievances. So, this is the one way that they targeted Aminul. And finally, they killed him.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a piece in the Times, the New York Times today, that quotes Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh offering "prayers and sympathy" for the dead, at the same time voicing "suspicions that the fires were arsons intended to undermine the country’s garment industry. Without presenting any evidence of a broader conspiracy," the New York Times wrote, "she called for vigilance against sabotage." She called in Parliament to detain those who are "carrying out subversive activities" and "take necessary actions against the culprits." Are you concerned about what message is being sent? What do you think the Bangladeshi prime minister is doing right now?
KALPONA AKTER: It is—you know, it is our bad luck that after this massive death and this accident, we are hearing this message from our prime minister when she’s saying that it is a sabotage and that—I mean, rather, saying that the safety standards wasn’t enough in that factory. Now, all these political group giving a political color of this accident. OK, we are really concerned at how they are regarding this issue, rather putting the focus on that the factory really—the garment factory is really in a vulnerable condition in terms of fire safety, in terms of safe working place. So I think the issue is being diverted in saying that it was a sabotage, it was a arson, it is a conspiracy. I don’t believe there was any conspiracy on this.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to get both of your response to a comment by Fox Business host Charles Payne. Speaking Monday, he said the fire at the Bangladesh factory was a rare event, and the people who died in the tragedy were thankful for their jobs.
CHARLES PAYNE: You know, listen, it’s one of these things—I don’t think something like this will happen again. I, you know, don’t think that the people in Bangladesh who perished didn’t want or need those jobs, as well. You know, I know we like to victimize everyone in this country, particularly when it comes to the for-profit motivation, which is being assaulted.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response? Let us begin in Washington, D.C., with Scott Nova.
SCOTT NOVA: It’s an extreme version for what is unfortunately a view that is held relatively widely. And that is, because Bangladesh is a poor country with high unemployment, that these workers should be happy with whatever jobs and whatever wages and whatever conditions they get from Western brands and retailers, because it’s better than nothing. But the reality is, any worker who works making clothing for a brand like Wal-Mart or retailer like Gap and, through that work, is contributing profits to those companies has a right to be paid a decent wage and, most importantly, has a right to work in a workplace where they don’t take their life into their hands every day when they come to work. So, it’s an absurd point of view.
AMY GOODMAN: Here in this country, Scott Nova, how are you organizing?
SCOTT NOVA: Well, we are working with a range of organizations around the country, including with universities who have licensing deals with important sports apparel companies, to pressure those brands and retailers to behave responsibly in terms of the way they operate their global supply chains. You know, one brand, PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, did agree after a fire in 2010 to make a series of binding fire safety commitments in an agreement with Bangladeshi and international unions and labor rights organizations. And that agreement, if implemented, will begin to make real change and protect lives in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the key players in Bangladesh, like Gap and Wal-Mart, have failed to join that agreement and continue to refuse to take meaningful action to protect the lives, to protect the safety of the workers who make their clothing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a comment from one of the protest leaders, who demanded those responsible for the disaster be held accountable and pay composition to the victims. This is Shirin Akhtar [sic].
NAZMA AKHTER: [translated] What I want to say is that there should be immediate compensation for the families who lost their relatives, and they must take responsibility for the living and the education of their children, and also for the treatment of those who were injured and those who have become disabled through the accident.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalpona Akter, your response to Shirin Akhtar?
KALPONA AKTER: That was Nazma Akhter. That was not Shirin Akhtar. So, what she—she was saying that definitely we want compensation for our workers, and the compensation should not be that so-called what the Bangladeshi government and factory owners are saying, that it is 100,000 taka or 200,000 taka. We want a compensation which should be considered as a fatal accident, which means that the compensation should be counted as how many years our workers could work if would they alive. So, this is—this is one.
And second, you know, if I wanted to comment on what Scott was saying, that, yes, we need these jobs. You know, we have a huge unemployment. We need these jobs. But it is really time to say and let the world know that we need these jobs with dignity. We need these jobs with a safe working place. Our workers working here and working for the Western brands, but did not give any license to anyone to kill them like they have been killed in Tazreen Fashions.
AMY GOODMAN: This factory fire in Bangladesh recalls a similar tragedy more than a hundred years ago here in the United States at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, not far from our studios here in New York City. It was the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history and a seminal moment for American labor. On March 25th, 1911, nearly 150 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, Jewish and Italian, died after a fire broke out at the Triangle factory. Only a year before, workers had protested for shorter hours, better pay, safer worker conditions and the right to unionize. The fire began when a lit cigarette or match ignited a fire on the eighth floor of the factory building. Flames quickly trapped the women in a deadly inferno. This is an excerpt of a radio piece that I did about the fire in 1986 along with journalist Kathy Dobie.
PAULINE PEPE: I worked right near where the fire was. There was cutters there. They were cutting the material. And as soon as they were just going out, it was time to go home. It was 4:00 on Saturday.
AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Pepe is a 94-year-old survivor of the Triangle fire.
PAULINE PEPE: I saw the fire in the tables, where they were all full with lingerie material, you know, and that had come up in a flame. When I saw that, I ran out. I went to the door that was closed. I didn’t know that was closed. I went there, knocked on the door. Closed. I just stood there 'til they opened it. Forty people going down the steps, we all tumbling one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn't get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.
KATHY DOBIE: The women that died that late afternoon were young Jewish and Italian immigrants. When the fire broke out, they tried to escape down the stairs but found the doors had been locked. The owners believed that, given the chance, workers would sneak out with stolen material, and union organizers would sneak in.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the women climbed onto the single fire escape. It collapsed. As onlookers watched, women fell nine stories to the sidewalk below. Inside the factory, the fire spread quickly, and with no exit left to them, the women climbed through the windows and leapt to their death.
AMY GOODMAN: That, an excerpt from our documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, special thanks to Kathy Dobie. Pauline Pepe was one of the oldest survivors of that fire. Scott Nova, you certainly know this history. On the eve of Thanksgiving, I went and visited the Triangle factory once again, just above Washington Square in New York. It has a plaque. The significance of what this meant in U.S. labor history, even launching Frances Perkins, who became the secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and similarities you see to Bangladesh?
SCOTT NOVA: Well, the Triangle fire, of course, galvanized a social reform movement that ultimately transformed the U.S. apparel industry from a sweatshop industry to one defined by middle-class wages and safe workplaces. Unfortunately, the response of the U.S. apparel industry to those improvements was to leave the United States and relocate production to countries like Bangladesh, where they could reinstitute this model of ultra-low cost production achieved through sub-poverty wages, lax regulation, lack of basic respect for worker rights and worker safety. And so, we see now, more than a hundred years after the Triangle fire, a replication of the results of those brutal conditions.
And the parallels are startling. At the Triangle fire, time of the Triangle fire, as in this factory, Tazreen, workers were working on a Saturday, working through the weekend. The fire started likely as a result, in the Tazreen case, of an electrical short. You heard the reasons for the fire at Triangle. In both cases, a complete lack of adequate fire safety provisions, inadequate fire exits for workers. The result is, people were trapped, in both cases, in the building, and more than a hundred, in each case, died.
And so, it really is an extraordinary achievement, in an ironic sense, that the U.S. apparel industry has managed to replicate early 20th century conditions, that were so brutal and cruel to workers, now again here in 2012 in factories in places like Bangladesh. It’s a shameful record for the U.S. apparel industry, a shameful record for companies like Wal-Mart and Gap. And hopefully, this horror will finally galvanize a global push for genuine reform of the labor practices of the big apparel brands and retailers.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Nova, in terms of Gap and Wal-Mart, what have been their responses? We invited Wal-Mart on the broadcast today. They—and while we have their statements, they haven’t come on, and we hope that they will someday soon. But talk about their history—I mean, particularly, for example, with [Tazreen] saying now they’ve just cut off the subcontractor; they didn’t realize that that factory was still being used.
SCOTT NOVA: Right. Well, one of the purposes of this system, global outsourcing, is to enable companies like Wal-Mart to distance themselves from responsibility for the wages and working conditions of the workers who make their clothing. And, of course, that’s what we see them now trying to do in this case: distance themselves from responsibility that they clearly bear.
You know, both Wal-Mart and Gap, who are two of the biggest players in Bangladesh, have been urged for years to put in place meaningful fire safety protections in their supply chain. After a similar fire in late 2010 that killed 30 workers in a factory producing primarily for Gap, Gap made a public pledge that they would institute a meaningful fire safety program. And through months of negotiations between ourselves and a range of other labor rights organizations, we tried to get Gap to make simple, basic commitments to put in place protections for their workers in Bangladesh. And yet they’ve refused to take those steps, pulled out of the negotiations, and continue to be unwilling to do the things that are necessary to protect workers, which include independent fire safety inspections in these factories, ensuring that there are adequate fire safety systems, compelling suppliers that don’t have them to put them in place, a commitment to stop doing business with suppliers that refuse to operate in a safe manner—of particular importance, a commitment to pay a price to suppliers that makes it possible for them to operate in a safe and responsible manner and still survive as a business. These are the steps that Gap and Wal-Mart and the other big players in Bangladesh need to take, and the steps they continue to refuse to take, even in the wake of fires like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke earlier this year in Dhaka in Bangladesh, the same city where the factory fires took place this weekend. She was asked about the repression workers face there when trying to organize to improve their conditions. This was Hillary Clinton’s response.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: You know, the history of labor rights and labor unions in any developing society is always difficult. There are strong forces that oppose workers being organized. We had this in my own country. You go back to the 19th and the early 20 century, when labor unions were just getting started, there were goons, there were thugs, there were killings, there were riots, there were terrible conditions. We passed laws at the beginning of the 20 century against child labor, against, you know, too many hours for people to work. But that took time. It took time to develop a sense of political will to address those issues. So you are beginning that, and it’s a very important struggle. Do not be discouraged or intimidated, but you deserve to have the support of your government and your society.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Nova, I’d like to get your response first, as an American citizen, Hillary Clinton speaking in Dhaka at the International School, Dhaka, and then Kalpona Akter, since she was speaking at the school to many young women, like you. Scott?
SCOTT NOVA: Well, it’s positive that the secretary raised that issue and spoke out about the plight of labor rights advocates, human rights leaders in Bangladesh, and specifically mentioned in her comments the murder of Aminul Islam. Of course, it would be better if those sentiments were actually reflected in U.S. trade policy, and if the U.S. put genuine pressure on U.S. corporations and on overseas suppliers in places like Bangladesh in the context of U.S. trade relationships to compel greater respect for the rights of workers. Unfortunately, our trade policy does not do that.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, I mean, Hillary Clinton certainly has access to the leadership of Wal-Mart as secretary of state, but also—you know, and as someone from Arkansas—but also, she was on the board of Wal-Mart for years, wasn’t she? For six years. Scott Nova?
SCOTT NOVA: Indeed, she was. And, you know, at a certain point in time, the individuals who lead these companies need to be held accountable as individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalpona Akter, what do you feel consumers can do in the United States, as we wrap up this discussion, you speaking to us as a worker activist from Dhaka, Bangladesh, where this horrific fire took place?
KALPONA AKTER: The consumers can play a big role, because they are the most powerful player in the supply chain. They can make accountable these brands and make them bound to make change on the ground, where workers are making clothes for these Western brands. These consumers group can raise their voice, and they should raise their voice and ask these factory—sorry, ask these Western brands that they wanted to know more about—more about the working condition of these workers who are making clothes for them, and also want to be sure that these workers are paying living wage, these workers are having a better life, better working condition and safe working place. They can play a really, really vital role. And this is my urge to the U.S. consumers, that, please, be accountable and make responsible to your brands, and ask them to make change on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Scott Nova, your response, as well? Should consumers even walk into these stores? And if so—or how should they organize, or what messages do you feel must be sent?
SCOTT NOVA: The best hope we have is that retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap and H&M will recognize that if they continue to operate in this manner, if they continue to pressure their suppliers on price to the point where we get these kinds of absurdly unsafe working conditions, that ultimately consumers will turn against them. And so, consumers in the U.S., consumers in Europe, do have the power to compel change, if they choose to use it.
AMY GOODMAN: I thank you both for being with us, Scott Nova with the Worker Rights Consortium, and Kalpona Akter, speaking to us from Dhaka, Bangladesh, part of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, facing criminal charges in her own country for organizing to make factories safer.
This is Democracy Now! democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Many of the people who died in this plant, the vast majority, this weekend, were women. We’re going to talk about women’s rights and the fight against violence against women with Eve Ensler. Stay with us.