A Bangladeshi woman looks at a wall filled with portraits of missing persons near the site of a garments factory that collapsed last week in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito).
One week ago, a garment factory collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, about thirty miles from the capital of Dhaka. The death toll of that factory collapse has climbed to more than 400 people, with hundreds injured and hundreds more still missing.
The night of the collapse, I was moderating a panel in Seattle with Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the horrific Tazreen garments factory fire that killed at least 112 people and injured 200. Abedin and Akter were at the tail end of a twelve-city tour to demand compensation and accountability for fire and building safety down the supply chain. The following interview was conducted with Akter on Saturday, April 27, three days after the Savar factory collapse and the day before she returned to Bangladesh. The interview has been edited.
You are just finishing up your End Death Traps tour of twelve cities in the US. What do you think you accomplished here?
Our main goals were to get full and fair compensation from Walmart for those who were killed and injured in the Tazreen fire and to get US retailers like Walmart and the Gap to sign a legally binding fire and building safety agreement. None of the companies would meet with us. But we also wanted to get consumers here to raise their voice. US consumers are so disconnected from the ground situation. We wanted to let them know who is making their clothes. We wanted them to know about the conditions in Bangladesh and the fact that workers earn $37 per month. We wanted them to hear directly from Sumi about what happened to her. We also wanted to make the connection between workers here and workers abroad. We are all fighting together against the same companies. We got lots of support from workers, consumers and unions during our tour—it was very gratifying.
You are traveling with Sumi Abedin, one of the survivors of Tazreen. Tell us what happened at Tazreen in November of last year.
It was about 7 at night. One thousand four hundred people worked in that factory, most of them women. When they smelled smoke, they went to their supervisor and he told them that it was a false alarm and made them go back to work. Suddenly, the room filled with smoke. The workers were coughing and couldn’t see. They tried to get out of the doors and windows, but both had been locked because the supervisor was afraid people might steal garments. Sumi was able to get through a broken window and jump out. She always says, though, that she didn’t jump to save her life, she jumped because she wanted her parents to be able to identify her dead body and she didn’t want to be burned beyond recognition. In all the remains of the fire, the labels were found that proved the factory was making clothes for Walmart, Disney and Sears.
Didn’t Walmart deny that at first?
Yes, they said they no longer worked with that particular manufacturer. But it came out in The New York Times that Walmart did still work with that manufacturer and in fact, that there had been an audit the previous year that classified the factory as a high-risk factory and Walmart had just sent a warning to the owner. It also came out that Walmart had attended a meeting of suppliers in Dhaka the year before Tazreen happened and was one of the most vocal in opposing any money to ensure building and fire safety because it would apparently have cost them too much.