Outsourcing Tragedy: Deadly Bangladesh Garment Factory Fire

Outsourcing is an infamous term used to describe the migration of American jobs overseas. Outsourcing has stripped us of jobs in key sectors like manufacturing, but there are many more factors at play. When American manufacturing positions are outsourced to developing nations that employ cheap labor we are doing more than outsourcing our jobs. We are also outsourcing our pollution, safety regulations and human rights standards.

The Triangle Fire, History of the Needlecraft Industry Mural

History of the Needlecraft Industry by Ernest Fiene. Courtesy of The FDR Presidential Library.

Many Americans are familiar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers, mainly new immigrants, were killed when a New York City garment factory went up in flames. The tragedy is credited with sparking the labor movement in America, leading to the creation of strict labor laws, unions and workplace safety regulations. Over one hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire such tragedies are unheard of in our country. What some may not realize is that these atrocities have not ended, they have simply been outsourced.

On November 24, 2011, a fire broke out in a over-crowded garment factory in the capital of Bangladesh. The factory was run by Tarzeen Fashions and created clothing for American companies including Walmart, GAP, Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, KMart, Sears and Sean Comb. Ignited on the first floor where flammable fabric was being illegally stored, the fire quickly spread and trapped workers in the seven story building without appropriate fire escapes. Factory workers, mainly young women, were ordered to remain at their sewing machines and ignore the fire alarms. Some of the few existing fire escapes were locked. In the end 112 garment factory workers died, many jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

Factory Fire

Photo Credit: Khurshed Rinku/AP Photo

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, over 500 workers have been killed in the past five years in garment factory fires in Bangladesh alone. The country is the world’s second largest exporter of clothing after China and is filled with unsafe, crowded factories. When it comes to responsibility for the loss of life in these fires, few are stepping up, continuing the cycle of tragedy. A majority of the clothing being made at Tarzeen was for Walmart, who released a statement days after the fire that they were not able to confirm whether the factory was an approved supplier. It took weeks to trace a spotty paper trail that detailed numerous violations flagged by Walmart’s monitoring program.

The reality is the global supply chain makes any corporate supplier responsibility monitoring program futile because of the existence of contractors and sub-contractors in countries like Bangladesh and China. The truth that was revealed is that most corporations have no idea where their outsourced products are being made, or under what conditions. The result is rampant child and slave labor, human rights violations, and products being manufactured without environmental regulations or safety standards.

Walmart Brand Faded Glory Clothing in Factory Fire

Photo Courtesy of the International Labor Rights Forum.

Some are calling on these major corporations to reform their garment factory monitoring programs. Others are pressuring the Bangladesh government to crack down on the unregulated industry. I applaud all these valid efforts, but I have my own solution: do not support this industry, choose to buy clothing made in the USA with the fair labor of our fellow Americans.

If we buy and wear clothing made in sweatshops like the Tarzeen Garment factory in Bangladesh, we are in essence voting our approval of the current system. Let’s stop outsourcing our responsibility as consumers. Please join me and consider buying only clothing made in USA or fair trade certified. If you think you can’t afford to, you would be surprised at the options available. You will also find you need to buy fewer products in general. When you consider the ethical impact of your purchase on human lives, can you really afford not to?