The human toll of sweatshop abuse has proved severe in recent months. The Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh in late November claimed the lives of 112 workers, and two months prior, a factory fire at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan killed 289 workers, laboring overtime to meet deadlines for the holiday shopping season. Ali Enterprises’ death toll doubled that of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. Since 2006, more than 600 Bangladeshi garment workers have burned alive in factory fires while sewing clothes for companies like Gap, H&M, and Walmart.
After the Tazreen fire, members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Southern California, held a vigil commemorating the workers who perished in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Students lit candles, read worker testimonies, and called on their university to take action against sweatshops by affiliating with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization that monitors factories producing university apparel. The students’ appeal responded to recent revelations that one of USC’s four apparel monitors failed to address the fire safety hazards that led to the blazes at both Ali Enterprises and Tazreen, and the death of the hundreds of garment workers trapped inside.
When Sweatshops Became Deathtraps
The problems underlying the proliferation of factory fires in the garment industry are twofold. First, fire safety costs money, and most brands are unwilling to foot the bill. The WRC estimates that it would cost companies like Walmart less than 10 cents per garment to make their contract factories in Bangladesh safe. Yet, in a 2011 meeting of retailers in Bangladesh, Walmart opposed safety improvement proposals, suggesting that because “corrections on electrical and fire safety” would require “extensive and costly modifications…it is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
Second, corporate-funded apparel monitors have failed at their stated mission to protect workers. For instance, just over two months prior to the factory fire in Bangladesh, multiple investigations were conducted at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan by corporate-funded monitors. One of those monitors, acting on behalf of Social Accountability International, awarded Ali Enterprises with SA-8000 certification, giving the factory a clean bill of health just weeks before 289 workers were unable to escape because doors were locked, windows were barred with iron grills, and fire exits were nonexistent.
USC’s Links to Corporate Monitors
USC contracts with four corporate apparel monitors for the production of its apparel. One of these monitors, UL Responsible Sourcing, was tasked by KiK, a German brand, to make sure Ali Enterprises in Pakistan was protecting worker safety. Despite conducting three audits of Ali Enterprises, UL Responsible Sourcing failed to detect and fix fire safety hazards at Ali Enterprises, resulting in the death of almost one-fifth of the factory workforce.
UL Responsible Sourcing also inspected the Trazeen factory prior to the fire on behalf of Walmart, however this was discovered only recently after a cover sheet from the monitor was found inside the factory. UL Responsible Sourcing refuses to release the contents of its audits despite calls from labor groups to do so. Worse of all, even if UL Responsible Sourcing found fire safety violations in the factories, built-in confidentiality clauses prevent its audits from being made public — meaning that workers can go for months in factories that are vertiable death traps without even knowing it.