Friday 21 December 2012

Failing  to  protect  employees  from  fires

There have been far too many instances when employers have failed to protect their employees from fires in their buildings. The recent example of this is the fire in the Tazreen clothing factory in Bangladesh that took place on November 24, 2012. Smoke and screams rose from the lower floor of the eight-story building and then the power went out in the building.
There was a host of safety violations that contributed to the severity of the disaster. These included managers closing collapsible gates to prevent workers using stairways to escape, managers telling their employees that they should not be alarmed and return to their work stations. Nine mid-level managers and supervisors prevented employees from leaving their sewing machines even after the fire alarm sounded saying that it was a merely a false fire alarm. The time needed to escape the deadly fire was subsequently lost. Also, the absence of a required closed-circuit camera system, and an illegal ground-floor warehouse contributed to the loss of life. And to make matters worse, fire extinguishers were not used once the blaze broke out. The factory did not have a sprinkler system or a fire escape, forcing workers to descend an internal staircase after the blaze began, or jump out of windows. Fire investigators discovered that if the yarn and fabric that caught fire had been stored in a fireproofed storage place as required by law, the fire could have been contained. Instead the fire spread quickly spreading toxic fumes from burning acrylic and pushing those fumes up the stairs to the upper floors. As a result of these acts of stupidity, at least 112 employees died as a direct result of the fire of which 58 bodies couldn’t be identified. Such conditions however are the norm in Bangladesh, not the exception. Since 2006, at least 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in similar factory fires.
The claim of “sabotage” by the owner of the factory and also by the government of Bangladesh was an attempt to cover up the responsibility of the owner and the government which obviously didn`t adhere to the fire safety laws of Bangladesh. In the days following the fire, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed claimed that the disaster had been “pre-planned by vested interests.” Her unsubstantiated allegations were an apparent attempt to cover up her mistakes when addressing opposition parties by implying they were seeking to destabilize the government thereby justifying her order to deploy police and troops against distraught and angry relatives at the scene and subsequent protests by workers.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is crucial for the government and the rich owners as a source of foreign currency and profit, all resting on the four million workers, many of them young women, who toil in about 4,500 garment factories for around $US37 a month. The owners don’t really care about their employees because they really care about cost-saving measures that will bring about the inflation of their own personal income.
There could have been ways to prevent this loss of life in the Tazreen clothing factory. First, there should have been a sprinkler system in all the floors of the building. Second, the fire extinguishers should have been used. Third, there should have been fire hoses on every floor.  Fourth, there should have been an outside fire escape built—a measure that could have provided an escape route free of the flames and the toxic smoke that choked victims trying to flee. Fifth, there should not have been locked iron gates in the stairwells separating the floors. Sixth, the fire exits should not have been locked. Seventh, there should have been managers in the factory that have fire-safety training and eighth, when a fire alarm goes off, no one should remain in the building.
With respect to leaving the building, this brings to mind of the 9/11 catastrophe when an announcement was made that everyone should return to their offices. Over a thousand employees died when the buildings collapsed as a direct result of that stupid blunder.
The company which owned the factory, the Tuba Group, is said to have been repeatedly cited for infractions of worker protection rules and thusly is culpable for the loss of so many lives in that building. Further, responsibility also has to be borne by the Bangladeshi government officials for failure to ensure those rules of fires safety were enforced. Probably the reason why the government failed in its duty to protect the workers in that factory is because corruption is rampant in Bangladesh governments. Allegations have been made that someone or some people in the government were paid off by allowing the factory to stay open despite its repeated infractions. Of course, they are only allegations but if they are true, then the people of Bangladesh have reason to be really concerned about their welfare.
An example of this kind of corruption took place in Sichuan China when many children died in 2008 when their schools collapsed on top of them during an earthquake because local officials corruptly colluded with contractors in their shoddy construction of the schools.
Establishing the rule of law and eradicating deeply entrenched corruption in places such as Bangladesh are extraordinarily difficult to bring to an end. The primary onus to effect such changes is on the governmental, political and professional institutions in those countries but corruption is so engrained in these governments and institutions; it may take years for them to be reformed.
However, western companies such as Walmart and other clothing outlets doing business abroad also have to take responsibility for the actions of owners of clothing factories such as the Tazreen clothing factory. The best way to deal with such factories is to send fire inspectors to these factories and if the necessary changes aren’t made, then the clothing stores should stop doing business with these factories until they meet proper fire protection standards. A Montreal company stopped importing from the Tuba Group’s Tazreen factory earlier in 2012 because the company failed an ethical-sourcing audit. What the Montreal company should have also done was to inspect the factory’s fire safety program; which obviously it didn’t do. It would appear that the Montreal company was more concerned about the ethical treatment of the workers employed by the factory than their protection from fires.  As a result of clothing stores not doing business with factories such as the Tazreen factory, Bangladeshi women may lose their garment industry jobs but if the Tazreen factory had been closed down, 112 who were working in it on November 24, wouldn’t have died in the fire.
One of the things that concerns me greatly is that during an April 2011 meeting between the clothing factory owners in Bangladesh and Walmart, indications are that Walmart was unwilling to pay higher prices for the clothing made by those factories and if Walmart had paid the prices asked by the factory owners, the owners would have been able to make their factories safer. Labour groups have said that if Walmart had paid roughly a 3% annual increase in prices paid to the factories, it would be sufficient to make the needed safety improvements. Of course considering the corruption going in Bangladesh, there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not that the extra monies paid to the owners of the factories wouldn’t end up in their personal bank accounts.
Walmart now says that it has stopped ordering clothing from the Tazreen factory because of its safety violations but they still get clothes indirectly from that factory through subcontractors who get the clothes from the Tazreen factory.                    Gap announced last October that it would start a fire-safety program with the garment factories in Bangladesh and help them get $20 million and also another $2 million in grants to pay the workers who are laid off while their garment factories are closed for the necessary renovations.
What is really needed in Bangladesh is an honest and independent inspection system that has the authority to close down factories that are not up to scratch and punish owners who have failed to bring about safety measures in their factories.
Speaking of punishment, there is no doubt in my mind that the owners and nine managers of the Tazreen factory should be severely punished. Here is what I have in mind.
The owners should be sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. All of their personal assets should be forfeited and the monies given to the families of the victims. The nine managers should be sentenced to prison for twenty-five years and all their assets to be forfeited and given to the families of the victims.
But knowing that the government in Bangladesh is corrupt, it is conceivable that the owners will probably get a slap on their wrists and the nine managers will get a kiss on their butts.
If you think that isn’t possible, consider what happened to the owners after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, that 1911 killed 146 employees—129 women and 17 men. Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women's blouses, known as shirtwaists. The factory normally employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women—the two youngest being only 14 who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays, earning between $7 and $12 a week. Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits which was a common practice at that time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks,  many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below and were instantly killed. Although one of the floors had a number of exits, including two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Place, flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway, and the door to the Washington Place stairway was locked so that managers could check the women's purses. The foreman who held the stairway door key had already escaped by another route without first unlocking the door. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 100 feet (30 metres) to their deaths on the concrete pavement below. 
The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin, which held two months' worth of accumulated cuttings by the time of the fire. Needless to say, the bin was not in a secured enclosed place. A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor that the fire was working its way up to their floor.  
The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building's roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair's trial began on December 4, 1911. Max Steuer, counsel for the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman, by asking her to repeat her testimony a number of times, which she did without altering key phrases. Steuer argued to the jury that Alterman and possibly other witnesses had memorized their statements, and might even have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. The jury acquitted the two men, but they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 in which plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.
There you have it. Injustice reigns supreme when it involves the rich owners of factories where employees are killed because of a lack of safety precautions. 

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