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Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety

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This week’s Bangladeshi factory disaster comes five months after a massive fire killed at least 112 garment workers at Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, which made clothing sold by Wal-Mart, among other companies. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart refused to compensate victims and their families, even though it was apparently the factory’s largest buyer. We’re joined by Sumi Abedin, a worker who survived the Tazreen fire by jumping from the factory’s third story, breaking both her arm and foot in the process. She is currently touring the United States to call on retailers like Wal-Mart, The Gap and Disney to take the lead on improving working conditions in Bangladesh. We also speak with Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and Charlie Kernaghan of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue to look at worker conditions in Bangladesh, as we turn to new revelations about the fire that killed 112 workers in a garment factory near the capital of Dhaka last November. Investigators confirmed workers’ descriptions of locked emergency exits. Until Wednesday’s building collapse, that fire was the worst industrial accident in the country’s history. These are some of the young seamstresses who escaped the inferno.

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: For more, we’re joined again by Kalpona Akter, still with us in San Francisco, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. We are also joined—sitting next to her is Sumi Abedin, a worker who survived the fire at the Tazreen factory. She jumped from the factory’s third story, breaking both her arm and foot in the process. They’re on tour in the United States calling on retailers like Wal-Mart, The Gap and Disney to take the lead on improving working conditions in Bangladesh. Kalpona will translate for Sumi. Charlie Kernaghan is still with us in Pittsburgh.

Sumi, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us how you survived the factory fire that made clothes for Wal-Mart and other companies in November?

SUMI ABEDIN: [translated] Like other day, on November 24th, I came into the factory in the morning, and I worked up to lunch. And I went outside to take lunch and came back, and work continued to 6:30. After 6:30, one worker came into my production floor in fourth floor and screamed, “There’s a fire in the factory!” He smelled a smoke when he was in toilet. So, by hearing this, we were rushed to the doors to escape, but the factory manager, line chief and supervisors, they shouted at us and said, “There is no fire! It is a lie!” And they locked the door.

OK, so, after working five to seven minutes, I smelled a smoke, and that was coming from downstairs. And I got panicky, and I understood there is a fire in the factory. And I ran to the doors, the stairs, and found that it’s padlocked. And then I was running here and there to escape from the factory, but couldn’t find anything. And the smoke was coming from the downstairs. And then I ran to the other stairs, which using by the man workers, and found that it’s open, and I was able to go to the second floor. But as all workers using same stairs, many of them I saw stampeded, and they were falling in the stairs. When I was on the second floor, I saw the downstair is blocked by the fire, and I understood I couldn’t escape from these areas then.

Meanwhile, the power gone, I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t even breathe. Then, some of my co-workers have cellphone, and following them, I was able to come in—following their cellphone light, I was able to come in the third production floor, on the third floor, where I saw many workers suffocated, many of my co-workers, and falling on the stairs. And I was just crying and screaming and asking for help, and I’m looking how I can escape.

Then I saw some of my co-workers trying to remove the window bar from the windows. And one of the mechanic, he’s trying to remove the adjustment bar from ventilation hole. And after hard try, he could able to do that. And then he jumped from that adjustment hole. And after he and one of my—I saw one of my co-workers jumped. And then I jumped. I never thought that I will survive. I didn’t jump to save my life; I did jump to save my body, because if I would be in the factory, I would be burned to ash, and my family even couldn’t identify my body. So I jumped—at least my parents can identify my body.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kalpona, if you could ask her, how old is Sumi Abedin? How long had she been working in the factory? And what she was getting paid?

SUMI ABEDIN: [translated] I’m 24 years old, and I worked at Tazreen one year and eight months. And I was making $55 per month as a senior sewing machine operator. And including overtime, I was making $60 to $65, being working 11 to 13 hours per day and six days in a week, sometimes seven days.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sumi Abedin, why are you in the United States? What do you want people in the United States to do?

SUMI ABEDIN: [translated] In my factory, I made clothes for Wal-Mart, Sean Combs, Disney, along with others. Once upon a time, we also made clothes for Gap. And I’m here to ask to them to pay the full and fair compensation to us and, in the same time, to ensure the factory fire safety in Bangladesh.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kalpona, I’d like to ask you about this compensation issue. There was a recent attempt in a meeting in Europe to create a compensation fund, and all of the major American companies that were producing there at Tazreen—Wal-Mart, Gap, Disney—all boycotted and refused to get involved in any compensation fund. Is that accurate?

KALPONA AKTER: This is totally accurate. The meeting has happened in Geneva April 15th, where four of the European brands, they participated. One of them was over phone. But all the U.S. retailers—like Wal-Mart; Sean Combs; Soffe, who was one of the sourcing companies from Tazreen; Dickies; Disney; Sears—all of them, they denied to, you know, participate in this meeting. So, in this meeting, there was a—you know, discussion was to pay the compensation to the workers. But none of the U.S. brands has been participated, it is accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: Workers at the factory made clothes for several Wal-Mart suppliers. After the fire, Wal-Mart President and CEO Mike Duke said the company is working with factories to improve standards and has offered training sessions throughout Bangladesh.

MIKE DUKE: I believe over 3,000 factories went through the training that was developed, including fire safety and the standards even for the associates to know, and then, in 2012, even raising the bar more with even additional audits and additional focus. You know, and unfortunately, you know, this particular factory was one of the ones that had been decertified and was one that Wal-Mart did not use as an authorized—you know, I will tell you that the particular supplier, when we found out had used an unauthorized factory, we took swift action. We terminated our relationship with that supplier, would no longer purchase any product. But with all of that, we’re still stepping back again and saying, “What else can we do?”

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan, that’s the CEO of Wal-Mart asking, “What else can we do?” From the Tazreen fire to today’s horrific tragedy, over 200 people dead at the building collapse and a thousand wounded, Duke asks, “What else can we do?”

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, it’s a situation—excuse me—where the bottom has fallen out. The workers themselves, the unions are talking about a general strike, talking about going after the U.S. government generalized system of preferences, because we need to establish some laws so that the workers are not trapped in these factories. As far as I know, Wal-Mart has done nothing to improve factory conditions. They go for the lowest price. They said there weren’t in the Tazreen factory, but of course they were in the Tazreen factory. This is happening repeatedly. And now Wal-Mart is saying, “Well, we may have been also in the Rana Plaza collapse.” So, they really don’t know where their garments are going. There’s tremendous corruption and graft. This has to—this has to stop.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Charlie, I wanted to ask you—you’ve been a veteran advocate about this situation of exploitation of workers in the Third World. I’ve interviewed you over 30 years now, from Haiti to Honduras, Salvador, China, and now increasingly Bangladesh. Yet we have here an administration in the White House right now that benefits from enormous American union support. What is this administration doing to assure some basic decent conditions with these morally bankrupt companies that continue to find ways to exploit labor in the Third World?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Honestly, I can’t say anything positive. I know we’ve tried, and like other people, to work with the U.S. trade representative’s office. But all we see are disasters. Whether it’s in Guatemala, whether it’s in Honduras, workers are being fired right and left when they try to organize a union—Bangladesh. In other words, they say that they have this—these laws to protect the rights of workers, and they always talk about the ILO, the International Labor Organization’s standards—no child labor, no forced labor, freedom of association, right to organize a union, right to bargain collectively. All it is is words. They never implement anything. So, if the workers are being killed in Guatemala and fired and cheated of their wages, it all goes on. There’s no changes.

And so, we have to get serious. This collapse of this factory—by the way, the person from Tazreen, as far as I know, Delwar Hossain, is walking away scot-free. And the owner of the Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, apparently has disappeared. And they’re going to go away scot-free. They’re not going to do any jail time. We have to, you know, stop this, and we have to demand more of our own government. We have to demand that the United States trade representative’s office will actually try to implement the laws, and if not, there’s going to be penalties for these companies.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this boycotting of the European meeting where safety issues would be discussed, that Juan and Kalpona were just talking about, Charlie Kernaghan?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Yeah, I mean, the starkness of these killings, whether it’s the 112 who were burned to death in Tazreen or whether it’s the collapse of the Rana Plaza where the death toll is going to vastly exceed the 210 that are already known to be dead, 600, 700, 800 people still trapped, this isn’t a game. We need to do something that’s very, very concrete. We don’t exist to take care of the labels, and we don’t exist to take care of Wal-Mart’s profits. What we need are worker rights. And we don’t get those from Wal-Mart. We get those from unions and from union organizing. And Bangladesh is going to have to allow workers to organize independent unions. Every time a union has tried to organize, the thugs come in, the gangsters come in, the gangs come in. They beat the workers up. We have to say, as a country, if we’re the United States and we’re one of the largest importers of these goods from Bangladesh, we have a voice. And we need the workers in Bangladesh to have their right to organize a union. They have a right to have freedom and democracy. They have a right to speak out. And they have a right to demand change. And, I mean, if we keep talking to Wal-Mart, we’re going nowhere. It’s the workers need their rights. That’s what we really need.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to end it there. We thank you all for being with us, Charlie Kernaghan, joining us from Pittsburgh, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, and speaking to us from San Francisco, Kalpona Akter with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and Sumi Abedin, who is a survivor of the fire in Bangladesh that killed at least 112 garment workers last November. Together they’re touring the U.S. to talk about unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh and to demand workers be compensated. Thanks so much for joining us. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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