(NEW YORK) — As labor activists push for a major safety overhaul after a garment factory fire that left more than 100 workers dead, the teen survivor of an earlier blaze has launched an online petition calling on three major U.S. clothing companies that buy clothes from Bangladesh, including Walmart, to commit to fire safety in their overseas factories.
A girl who calls herself “Lovely” says she was 11 in 2006 when a fire swept through the clothing factory where she worked. Lovely and 150 other workers were injured, and more than 60 people died. She said the building where she worked was a “death trap” — and that six years later, conditions at Bangladesh factories haven’t changed.
“Every day I wonder,” asked Lovely, “is this the day when there will be another fire and more people will die?”
On Change.org, Lovely, who didn’t give her last name, started a petition calling on Wal-Mart, Gap and H&M, the top three buyers of garments from Bangladesh, to pledge support for “a real fire safety program that will save the lives of the companies’ sweatshop workers.”
The International Labor Rights Forum, which connected Lovely with Change.org, also issued a separate joint statement with the Worker Rights Consortium demanding that Walmart compensate the families of those who died in this weekend’s fire, and that Walmart join an existing fire and safety program that unions and labor rights groups have created with other foreign companies. PVH, owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands, has already signed on to the program, as has German retailer Tchibo.
The calls for reform came as Bangladesh government investigators reached an initial conclusion that the weekend’s deadly fire may have been intentionally set.
“We have come to the conclusion that it was an act of sabotage. We are finding out as of now who exactly the saboteurs are and all culprits will be brought to book,” said the country’s interior minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, according to published reports.
One garment industry official, quoted in local media, went so far as to suggest outsiders intentionally set the fire to destabilize the garment industry.
The assertion exposed longstanding deep tensions between government and industry officials on one side, and the thousands of workers who make bare-bones earnings sewing clothes for American and European fashion brands on the other. Anger from the workers appeared mostly to be directed at factory owners. One labor organizer told ABC News that the owners were aligned with government “thugs” whom she said help support the owners’ efforts to minimize cost, no matter the risk to workers.
At least 112 workers died in the fire at Tazreen Fashions Limited’s nine-story factory on the outskirts of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, late Saturday night. The death toll may actually be higher, but officials have had difficulty identifying victims because of the intensity of the blaze. One witness described the scene to ABC News in an email.
“Everything burned,” the witness wrote. “Even the man and woman burned into ashes.”
Over the past several days, the names of the American brands that were relying on the Tazreen factory to produce t-shirts, fleece, jeans and other garments has become more clear. Photos taken by workers showed labels for Walmart’s private label, Faded Glory, in the burned-out remains along with clothing for a number of other U.S. labels, including a clothing line by music mogul Sean Combs called ENYCE, and clothing by the workwear brand Dickies.
According to a document posted on-line by the manufacturer, Walmart had been warned by an inspector that the factory posed a safety hazard to workers. A company spokesman told ABC News that Walmart thought it had dropped the factory from its list of production facilities in Bangladesh, and said it was surprised to learn that a middleman had continued to use Tazreen to produce a Walmart line of clothes.
“A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies,” said a Walmart statement released Monday. “Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier. The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
The company would not say if it had plans to compensate victims of the fire or provide any assistance to the families of those who lost relatives in the blaze.
The president of Sean Combs’s clothing brand provided a statement to ABC News saying the company “expect[s] all our licensees to have in place compliant standards for fire and safety conditions at any factory that may produce our brand,” but blamed the decision to produce the line at Tazreen on a middleman — the Hong Kong-based company Li & Fung. Li & Fung did not return calls seeking comment, but posted a statement on its website expressing sympathy for the victims, and laying out a plan to compensate each family of a dead worker with a payment of $1,200.
A spokeswoman for Dickies said the company ceased production at the Tazreen factory “earlier this year” but would not say when. She would not respond to questions inquiring how clothing with the Dickies label was photographed on the factory floor the day after the blaze.
Officials from the company that owns the Tazreen factory have said little as the government has investigated the cause of the fire, and has not addressed the assertions by some survivors of the blaze that factory managers had initially ordered workers to remain in place when fire alarms sounded, that there were limited fire exits, and that at least one exit was locked. The company, Tuba Group, includes on its website a certificate showing a rating of compliance from a non-profit group called Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production, or WRAP, which is based in Arlington, Va.
The certificate, however, was for a different factory owned by Tuba. The company initially applied for a certification from the group for the Tazreen factory in November of last year, according to Russ Jowell, communications manager for WRAP. But Tuba failed to pay the $1,200 application fee for the Tazreen certification, and so the factory was never visited by the group’s inspectors.
“The factory in question, Tazreen, has not, nor has it ever been, certified by us. Not now or ever,” Jowell said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio