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.
Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University