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Garment factory fires abroad may have Canadian connections, says activist

As the flames roared through the factory, panicked workers fled for their lives late last month at the Tazreen Fashion plant in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The Nov. 24 deaths by fire and negligence were not an isolated tragedy in the apparel industry sweatshops of Asia, a Canadian activist told the Tyee recently, and the Dhaka deaths may have connections to Canada.

More than 700 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires since 2006. And this September, over 250 garment workers died in a fire in the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan. As was true after the Tazreen fire, local accounts of the Ali Enterprises catastrophe mention doors locked from the outside, blocked staircases and desperate workers fleeing the flames.

On Dec. 17, the BBC reported on a Bangladeshi government inquiry that found that the Tazreen fire, while of uncertain origin and possibly the result of sabotage, was unnecessarily deadly because of "severe negligence" on the part of factory management.

In many Asian apparel factories, Canadian anti-sweatshop activist Kevin Thomas of the Maquila Solidarity Network told The Tyee, not even minimal safety precautions are in place, and a lethal pattern of profit-driven neglect occurs far too often in these factories staffed by Third World workers who make much of the developed world's sports gear, clothing and electronics today.

While the supply chains within the globalized market are so fragmented and complex that it is often difficult to connect such Third World disasters with specific brands or consumer countries, a disturbing suggestion has arisen that the Tazreen plant may have been producing for the Canadian market.

"A community member in Dhaka tells us he saw Walmart Canada labels in the ruins of the plant," Kevin Thomas of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network told The Tyee on Dec. 13. The Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 10 that its reporter on the scene in Dhaka had found evidence within the burnt-out factory that it had been producing Walmart labeled goods, despite the fact, the Journal notes, that Walmart spokespeople told the business paper that the Tazreen plant had been delisted as an approved supplier to the retail giant.

A May 2011 inspection of Tazreen Fashions was carried out for a Walmart supplier, Canada's NTD Apparel Inc., according to documents found by the Journal reporter at the factory and on the website of Tuba Group, Tazreen's parent company. The inspection found that exits and stairwells at the factory were blocked, workers were unaware of evacuation routes and the factory lacked some firefighting equipment.

"Accidents do happen," Thomas told the Tyee, "but what turns an accident into a catastrophe is when your company has failed to institute even the most minimal safety measures -- things like unobstructed emergency exits, electrical inspections, working fire extinguishers and worker evacuation training."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips here.

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