Over a year after 112 workers died in a Bangladeshi garment factory fire, police have charged the owners of the factory with culpable homicide. The arrests come in the wake of yet more factory fires and mounting garment worker protests demanding higher wages and safer working conditions.
The charges target the owners of the Tazreen Fashion factory, Delowar Hossain and Mahmuda Akther, as well as eleven other employees including factory managers, engineers, and security guards. The Tazreen Fashion factory, which manufactured clothing for Walmart and Sears, went up in flames last November. Some managers allegedly ordered employees to keep working through the alarms, trapping them as the fire worsened. Hossain was accused of “criminal negligence” by a home ministry report last December, which blamed the fire on shoddy construction and illegal storage of flammable yarn on the ground floor. Hossain also illegally expanded the factory from 3 to 8 floors and had recently lost the factory’s fire certification.
The Tazreen tragedy is hardly unique. The factory fire was soon followed by the infamous factory collapse in Rana Plaza, in which 1,132 people died and more than 2,500 more were injured. Scrutiny on the industry after these two disasters quickly revealed that dangerous conditions represent the norm. Three-fifths of the country’s garment factories are vulnerable to collapse, and many have blocked off emergency exits and barred windows. More than 15 percent of the Bangladeshi factories that supply Walmart failed basic safety tests, by the retailer’s own count.
Bangladesh’s garment industry represents the most powerful business interest in the country, so consequences for the factories’ dangerous working conditions have been few and far between even as the death toll grows. Yet despite national outcry, the industry — and the major American retail companies that support it — has fought basic safety standards, more thorough inspections, and workers’ efforts to unionize. The charges against the Tazreen owners may send a message to other factory owners that the government will no longer look the other way when confronted with the industry’s abysmal conditions.