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Bangladeshi Factory Disaster Inspires Unrest, Demands for Better Conditions

May 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now an update from Bangladesh, where more than 1,000 garment workers died when their factory collapsed last month. That tragedy focused attention on dangerous conditions for people who make clothes for Western retailers. In the aftermath, some workers are walking off their jobs in protest.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News reports.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, Independent Television News: Beyond the smoke stacks of these brick factories, amid an industrial landscape lost in time, and you find Ashulia, a town which is home to scores of clothing factories, serving some of the world’s best-known high street brands.

The police seem to be expecting a riot. And they are everywhere, patrolling the main highway and guarding every factory gate against attacks by the workers supposed to be making clothes inside. Mid-morning, and thousands of workers are working off the job. They make clothes exclusively for H&M. The Swedish retail giant is Bangladesh’s biggest clothing buyer.

And this is one of more than 20 factory closures in Ashulia town because of unrest. It was the collapse of this factory complex in the capital which has left millions in Bangladesh’s clothing industry angry and afraid. Well over 1,000 died here last month. It’s the biggest industrial disaster of the age.

In Ashulia, workers told us, enough was enough. “We’re not safe,” said this man, “and that’s why we decided to come out.”

MAN: Our main problem is salary, very, very less. Everything we buy, expensive. So, the money, pay not enough.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The factory itself says it pays above the industry’s minimum wage, which is around $40 dollars a month, the lowest in the world, though the government has pledged to raise it.

MOHAMMED ISLAM, Manager: We are now — we are working for — only for H&M.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: One of the factory managers told me his clothes went to H&M in America and 25 countries across Europe. He said he had sent his workers home because they were frightened by local unrest and that he would love to give them a pay rise, if only he could.

MOHAMMED ISLAM: Our international buyers, they’re bargaining with us for one thing, for one end.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: So, you’re under big pressure.

MOHAMMED ISLAM: So, many competition here. Our neighbor country, India, we already lost so many orders. And those orders, they are going to India. That’s why we can’t increase our salaries, as are expected, as there are expectations.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Afterwards, he gave me a tour of his abandoned factory floor, where H&M’s clothes were discarded mid-stitch. “Our factory is very safe,” he said. But when he tried to open the door of a fire escape, it was padlocked shut.

Earlier this month, H&M joined other multinationals in signing up to a new agreement on fire and building safety.

In a statement, H&M told us: “We support the workers in their struggle for higher wages. We have a regular presence at supplies factories. The last full audit in the mentioned factory was in April 2013. From our audit protocol, we can tell that the factory has followed our code of conduct in regards to wages and fire safety.”

Ten minutes down the road, this is what remains of Tazreen Fashions. Much of it was built illegally. The workers say the fire exits were padlocked shut, and 112 of them burned to death here during a fire in last November.

The workers here are squeezed by factory owners who need to make a profit and by consumers and high street brands overseas who want cheap, cheap prices. And until the rules of this supply change, nothing for these people is likely to change very much.