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Two Fatal Fires Highlight Poor Working Conditions for Vulnerable Groups

Two Fatal Fires Highlight Poor Working Conditions for Vulnerable Groups

The news this week is filled with the details of not one but two fatal fires, one in Bangladesh and the other in Germany. In Bangladesh, a blaze that started in the Tazreen Fashion factory tore through the facility, killing at least 110 workers in a structure that, evidence suggests, was locked to prevent workers from leaving, and lacked emergency exits. Meanwhile, Germany’s Black Forest region was rocked by a fire in Titisee-Neustadt that killed 14 people at a sheltered workshop for disabled people, including a supervisor and 13 clients. The facility lacked sprinklers and advocates are calling for tougher laws on workplace safety for sheltered workshops.

Two very different fires in two very different places, but there’s a strong connection between them. Both speak to the tendency for poor working conditions to persist in facilities where workers belong to marginalized social groups, and to the urgent need for reform to ensure that events like this never happen again. A death toll this high from a workplace fire should be a thing of the past, reminiscent of the Triangle Fire (above), not a modern and distressingly common event.

Investigators are still piecing together the events of the Tazreen Fashion fire. It appears to have started around seven in the evening, according to the New York Times, and it took all night to bring the conflagration to a halt. Evidence suggests arson may have been involved in the fire, although it was initially attributed to an electrical problem. When the flames were finally out, more than 100 workers were dead, and many more had serious injuries.

It’s already clear that this tragedy could have been prevented. One of Tazreen Fashion’s own customers, Walmart, had already flagged the factory as dangerous, yet continued using it as a vendor, along with a number of other firms including Dickies and Infinity Woman. Furthermore, fire personnel claim that the problem with getting the fire out lay not with the flames themselves, but with difficulty in approaching the fire; in other words, the factory was a death trap waiting for such an event.

In Germany, a fire that started in a storage room spread quickly through a facility with inadequate fire safety precautions, causing needless deaths at the care facility. Germans are horrified and angered by the events, wondering how the fire could have gotten so out of control so quickly at a facility in an industrial nation.

Poor fire safety procedures and conditions ripe for disaster at both sites can be attributed to who was working at the facility; in Bangladesh, garment workers produce a high volume of low-cost goods to meet the ceaseless demand from the West, while in Germany, members of the sheltered workshop belonged to a highly marginalized group, the disabled community. Limited oversight is common when the only workers involved are those whom society considers disposable, whether they be factory workers in Bangladesh, disabled clients of a sheltered workshop in Germany, or farm workers in the United States.

These fires must be viewed within a larger human rights context, illustrating the critical need for reforms to protect all workers, and to hold companies that use the services of firms like these accountable. Because in 2012, no one should be dying in a factory fire.

Related stories:

100 Years After Triangle Fire, Immigrant Workers Still Fighting for Labor Rights

Labor Laws Protect Foxconn Factory Workers in Brazil

Wisconsin Wants to Repeal Child Labor Laws, Too

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Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University

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75 comments

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3:57PM PST on Dec 14, 2012

People who use the labor of unfortunate people to line their pockets and have no conscience which leads to death and injury of innocents should be in prison!

3:45AM PST on Dec 14, 2012

This is absolutely disgusting. They were locked in?! How does this even happen in this day and age? This calls for better regulation and harsh penalties for employers who fail to provide safe working conditions for their employees. This kind of situation is unacceptable.

4:38AM PST on Dec 3, 2012

History repeats itself...

4:02AM PST on Nov 29, 2012

In his book "Trinity", Leon Uris describes a fire in an Irish garment factory that kills hundreds of Irish women (based on a real event). 150 years after that tragedy, the same story keeps getting repeated. Not just Wal-Mart, but all corporations are greedy. Some things never change.

10:11PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

Do any members here really think just by signing a petition will make a difference to Walmart? I think not. They don't even care about their employees in America, let alone a foreign country. It's all about money, honey.

3:42PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

Wal-Mart will do anything to earn a profit. The lives of "the little people" seem to have no meaning to them. My suggestion is to not do business with Wal-Mart and to try and buy items that are not made in third-world countries. It's hard and sometimes one has no choice.

3:18PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

No matter what way you look at it, Walmart is a company that cares little about employees, where their merchandise comes from or fair labor practices. Thousands of people are boycotting and helping the employees who are protesting (they are not making living wages). PLEASE don't shot there. Not for Christmas, Not for anything. Unless they change. Only we can help here by getting them where they care:$$$$$$$$$$.

2:55PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

Countries need laws/regulations for businesses and buildings to prevent these things from happening. They don't get done unless the laws/regulations are in place. We know we cannot count on businesses to do the right thing. In these laws/regulations it should be made clear that CEO's and those in charge of safety and facilities management of any businesses that do not meet these laws/regulations will be heavily fined and if people come to harm or death because of their neglect they will be prosecuted for negligent abuse or manslaughter and serve prison time. It is time businesses understand that people have had enough of their thoughtlessness and total disregard for their employees and customers and we all demand better with responsibility and accountability.

2:51PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

Safe working conditions should be a basic human right. If big companies are eager to benefit from the advantages of international commerce, this could be tied to mandatory international regulation to preserve reasonable and achievable standards of human protection, just as there's a clear need for environmental protection.

2:03PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

This horrific atrocity did not have to happen. American companies who use (and abuse!) foreign labor should be held partially responsible. When will Americans wake up and realize that all those bargain goods they enjoy come with a very hefty price. Thinking about the terror those helpless people endured is so disturbing to me. May God have mercy on us.

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