Labour and garment sector leaders yesterday came down hard on US retail giant Wal-Mart over its conduct following the Tazreen fire, saying its business practices were unethical.
â€œAfter a fire, Wal-Mart cannot simply say that it would not take products from the factory,â€ Roy Ramesh Chandra, chairman of Bangladesh National Council (BNC), said at a discussion on the Bangladeshi garment sector.
Chandra, also a member of International Labour Organisation's governing board, added: â€œThe company will have to take responsibility for their part and give compensation to the workers for the loss of future earnings.â€
"Otherwise, we will not allow Wal-Mart to do undisturbed business anywhere in the world," he threatened.
Tazreen Fashions was manufacturing garment products for Wal-Mart at the time of the fire that claimed at least 112 lives.
In the aftermath of the fire, Wal-Mart cancelled all ties with Success Apparel, a New York-based sourcing company that used to buy merchandise from Tazreen in a complex sub-contract.
Mohammad Hatem, first vice-president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), too, criticised Wal-Mart for distancing itself following the Tazreen fire -- and refusing to take any responsibility.
â€œTheir approach was not right. They should come forward and help improve the fire safety conditions in the apparel industry," Hatem said.
The BKMEA leader also criticised the buyers for their unwillingness to pay more to the manufacturers.
â€œThey bargain hard for one or two cents, and take their orders to another supplier if they see that it will save them five cents."
Meanwhile, Chandra said as the factory owners do not have the capacity to give salaries to their workers which enables them a decent life, the brands and buyers will have to pay the difference, which will, ultimately, ensure a sound industry.
"Brands and buyers reap the maximum benefits of the garment business around the world," he said.
In his keynote speech, Aamanur Rahman, a deputy director of ActionAid Bangladesh, said the buyers in the value chain cannot finish their responsibility just by placing orders with the suppliers.
"Similarly, they also will not be able to avoid their responsibility by passing on responsibilities onto others when any tragic incident takes place," he said.
Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah, former director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence, said the Tazreen fire should be a turning point for the garment industry.
â€œIt is necessary to bring comprehensive changes to the sector," he said, while identifying the lax fire safety system as the Achilles' heel of the sector which employs over 30 lakh workers and -- accounts for about 80 percent of the country's exports.
Hatem urged all to use the momentum to take the sector forward -- and not just stop at restoring the garment sector's image.
Shahidullah suggested factory owners to set up their own fire-fighting systems so that any incidence of fire can easily be brought under control.
His successor Ali Ahammed Khan, the newly-appointed DG of the fire service, said fire safety is everyone's business.
Nazma Akhter, executive director of Awaj Foundation, said the country does not have a culture of following labour laws, while adding that the factory owners are hardly informed of the laws.
Akhter said the owners are mostly busy with making the buyers happy, which leaves them with little to no time to take of the rights of the workers. "There is a huge gap between the owners and the workers," she said.
Shirin Akhtar, a rights activist, said workers should be placed at the heart of all the efforts the country makes in repairing its image. "It is a labour-intensive sector, so the owners and the buyers will have to look at the workers if Bangladesh wants to restore its image."
"Labour is never cheap and the workers are not a matter of mercy. The owners will have to take this into consideration,â€ she said.
An official of a global retain company said a group of major western brands have written to Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, seeking her involvement in talks on fire safety standards at the country's garment factories.
The official said a group of chief executives from European brands, which included Marks & Spencer, New Look Retailers and Primark, under the umbrella of the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), signed the letter on January 17. The letter has been sent to the prime minister's office on Tuesday, he said.
Prof Golam Rahman, president of Bangladesh Institute of Planners, and Monsur Ahmed Chowdhury, a governing body member of ActionAid Bangladesh, also spoke.
ActionAid Bangladesh, Population Services and Training Centre, Awaj Foundation and Responsible and Accountable Garments Sector Challenge Fund jointly organised the programme at the CIRCDAP's auditorium in Dhaka.