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Bangladesh Fire Raises Concerns for Women Workers

Dec 13th, 2012Business, Environment, International, News, South East Asia

Photo courtesy of Nari Uddug Kendra, one of Global Fund for Women’s Bangladeshi grantee partners.

By Lindsay Hebert

The fire that killed 112 garment factory workers in Bangladesh last month led to the scrutiny of brands like Gap and WalMart that use factories abroad to produce low-cost clothing for American consumers. Perhaps the most disturbing account came from a 19-year-old woman who survived the blaze by jumping from a third floor window of the building. She is now desperate to get her job back.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh has a $20 billion a year garment industry that makes up 80 percent of its exports. About 80 percent of the industry’s workers are female.

Shalini Nataraj, director of advocacy and partnerships for the Global Fund for Women, said that the growth of garment factories in Bangladesh has created opportunities for women to become wage earners and to transcend restrictive cultural norms.  However, dire economic factors make them vulnerable to exploitation.

“We need to have global consensus on things such as basic workers’ rights, so that companies and countries can’t create their own conditions that have lower standards,” she said.

But corporate and government action is slow moving. Inspections prompted by the disaster uncovered several factories without basic fire safety measures; clothing production will continue in the month offenders have been given to remedy the deficiencies.

“Bangladesh does have law and labor and safety codes on paper. What needs to happen is uniform enforcement,” Nataraj said. “Self-policing by corporations is just not sufficient.” Major retailers have yet to sign on to a mutual agreement for safe working conditions.

As fire safety dominates press releases and media coverage, women’s advocate groups propose a more comprehensive agenda for reform.

The Global Fund provides resources to women-led and women-focused groups in Bangladesh, enabling them to set their own priorities for change. These organizations have used their newfound employment as a platform for legitimizing women’s rights.

The Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS), a Global Fund grantee, was founded in 1999 by three displaced women garment workers who were appalled by the exploitation of their fellow employees. They have since helped women establish trade unions to bargain for fair wages, maternity leave and safe labor conditions.

Phulki, another grantee, works with over 2,000 workers and helps provide childcare facilities at factory sites. The organization also campaigns employers to offer skills-development training by promoting the economic benefits associated with capacity building.

“We believe that supporting our grantees will benefit everyone in the long run – consumers, workers and the companies for which they manufacture products,” said Nataraj.

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