Reports

November, 25 2000 |  Share

Chowdhury Knitwear factory fire

Factory Fire in Bangladesh Kills Fifty-One
Including Eight Children 10 to 14 Years Old

Chowdhury Knitwear and Garments FactoryLtd.
BSCIC Industrial Zone
Shibpur, Narsingdi District
Bangladesh

(On the outskirts of Dhaka)

On November 25, 2000, at 7:30 p.m. a fire broke out on the top floor of the four-story Chowdhury Factory building. About 800 workers, the vast majority of them young women, were being forced to work overtime, which was typical. The women regularly worked from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. or later, and frequently even until 2:00 a.m.- putting in a 12-to-18-hour shift. They were required to do this six or seven days a week. Some women reported being forced to work over 360 days a year.

The fire spread quickly. The women were sewing sweaters for export to the United Kingdom. It was pitch dark outside. The air began to fill with smoke, and theworkers started choking and panicking. Then the electricity and lights went off. In the darkness the women screamed and ran for the exit, and crowded into the stairs, pushing and shoving, but at the bottom the exit was locked. The women were locked in. They clawed at the door and tried to break through the locked gate, but they couldn't get out. As the heat's intensity rose, some of the women jumped from the fourth floor only to be impaled on the spiked metal fence surrounding the factory. Fifty-one workers died, most of them teenaged girls. Four were burned beyond recognition, the rest died of smoke inhalation. Among the dead were five 10-to-12-year olds,and three who were just 14.

 

 

Hundreds were injured. There was no space left in the hospitals. Injured workers, who were in great pain, were laid on soiled thin mattresses on the ground.

The Chowdhury Factory didn't even pay the full medical bills for the injured workers. One sewing operator who was taken to the hospital unconscious, who had passed out from smoke inhalation and then been trampled by the panicked workers, was given just $93 by the company for hospital expenses. Her actual medical expenses came to over $130, which meant she had to borrow the equivalent of seven weeks' wages just to get the basic treatment she needed to stay alive. November 25, 2000 Coffins for the deceased workers of Chowdhury Knitwears Ltd.

 

 

Hours at the Chowdhury Factory:
  • 12-to-15-hour shifts are the rule.
  • Standard shift: 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. However, the women are regularly forced to work to 10:00 p.m., and frequently this is extended to 2:00 a.m.
  • The women work at least six days each week, and sometimes seven.
  • Some workers reported that they were regularly forced to work seven days a week, over 360 days a year!
  • No overtime premium is paid. (By law, any overtime hours beyond the regular 48 hours of work are to be paid at a 100 percent premium.)
Wages at the Chowdhury Factory:

It is typical for sewing operators to be paid about 1,200 taka per month, no matter how many overtime hours they work. There are 53.75 taka to $1.

A sewing operator will work, at the minimum, 66 hours a week. (A twelve-hour shift, six days a week, with an hour off for lunch).

1,200 taka a month

  • 8 ¢ an hour
  • 86 ¢ a day (11-hour shift)
  • $5.15 a week (6 day, 66 hours)
  • $22.33 a month
  • $267.91 a year


Obviously, these women were being cheated, as they should have been paid at least 17 cents an hour for the minimum of 18 hours of overtime they were forced to work each week. No one can
possibly live on such wages.

One woman told us that her 14-year-old son also worked in the factory. He was paid just 4 cents an hour. He was also forced to work at least 12 hours a day.


600 taka a month

  • 4 ¢ an hour
  • 43 ¢ a day (11 hours)
  • $2.58 a week (6 days, 66 hours)
  • $11.16 a month
  • $133.95 a year

 

Bangladesh is the Sixth Largest Exporter of Apparel to the U.S.

The American people have a powerful voice to demand more humane treatment for the workers in Bangladesh: that their human and worker rights be respected; that they be paid at least a subsistence level wage; and that basic factory health and safety standards be implemented.

In the year 2000, U.S. companies imported 924 million garments made in Bangladesh, with a wholesale customs value of over $2.2 billion. Apparel imports from Bangladesh were up 25.7 percent in 2000 over the year before. Forty-nine percent of Bangladesh's worldwide apparel exports are destined for the U.S. market.

This gives the American people a powerful voice to improve conditions in Bangladesh. We purchase the goods, and the companies must listen.

Some Facts on Bangladesh
  • There are 129 million people in Bangladesh
  • There are 1.6 million garment workers, 85 percent of them young women
  • Bangladesh is the 6th largest apparel exporter in the world to the U.S., and the 5th largest to the European union. Forty-nine percent of Bangladeshi apparel exports goes to the U.S., while 51 percent goes to Europe.
  • Only 23 percent of the women workers even know what the legal minimum wage is. At least 40 percent are not paid the legal minimum wage in Bangladesh, which, at 8 cents an hour, is already well below subsistence.
  • Fifty percent of the children in Bangladesh are chronically malnourished.
  • Bangladeshi women report extreme sexual harassment in the factories.
  • Often forced to work 7 days a week, 12 to 18 hours a day, 68 percent of the women report being exhausted, sick, with their children uncared for and their families in real crisis and falling apart.
  • Asked what a bare subsistence level wage would be, one just sufficient to meet the most basic family needs and climb out of misery, some women responded, at least 39 cents an hour. Would this be too much for the U.S. multinationals, like Wal-Mart and Kohl's, to pay?
  • Wal-Mart and its contractors pay no taxes in Bangladesh, despite the fact that Wal-Mart is 49 times larger than the Government of Bangladesh, which takes in only $3.9 billion in revenues to support a population of 129 million people, including health care, education, and housing. Wal-Mart's sales in 2000 were $193 billion. Export assembly factories pay no corporate taxes, no property, local or state taxes, no income tax, not even a sales tax; and no import or export duties.
  • There are only 11 government Labor Ministry inspectors to enforce the law for the entire Dhaka area, where there are over 1 million garment workers.
  • An estimated 10,000 to 30,000 children still work in Bangladesh's garment factories.
  • The Chowdhury Garment Company in Bangladesh includes factories producing towels for export to the U.S., which show up in beauty salons, health clubs, restaurants, schools and hospitals across the U.S.