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U.S. companies should pressure Bangladesh factories to improve conditions

While many Americans spent this weekend polishing off the Thanksgiving leftovers and snagging items off holiday wish lists, garment workers in Bangladesh fought for their lives- and more than 100 did not succeed.

Over the weekend, a fire ravaged the factory for Tazreen Fashions outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing at least 111 workers and sending many others to the hospital to treat burns and smoke inhalation.

Then, just a couple of days later and not far from the Tazreen Fashions factory, another fire began at a 10-story clothing factory in Uttara, Bangladesh. At least 10 workers were injured as they jumped from windows to escape the fire.

Even more devastating, these fires were not unusual.

At National COSH’s Worker Safety and Health Policy Summit last month in San Francisco, Sanjiv Pandita of the Asia Monitor Resource Center said, “We have a ” Triangle fire” nearly every month in Asia.” And just a couple weeks later, another fire that killed almost the exact same number of people as the Triangle fire happens again.

In response to this weekend’s fatal fire in Bangladesh, Pandita said, “It is really bad. We had two major fires in a period of just three months, and more than 300 workers have died. They seem to be worse than the Kader fire in 2003. It seems we are really going backwards in Asia.”

Bangladesh has a notoriously poor fire safety record, and more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires since 2006, the New York Times reported. The state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha’s figures are even worse: It recently reported that fires kill about 6,000 people every year in Bangladesh.

While companies in Bangladesh certainly must improve conditions in their factories to prevent these fires, those of us stateside must take responsibility, as well.

“Companies that buy from these suppliers- like Tommy Hilfiger, GAP, and Wal-Mart- need to be held accountable for ensuring that their producers have safe conditions,” said Tom O” Connor, executive director of National COSH.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has provided an excellent program for action with specific standards companies should meet.  

CNN reported that Bangladesh has around 4,500 garment factories that make clothes for brands including Tesco, Wal-Mart, JC Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s and Carrefour. The sector earned $19 billion in the financial year that ended in June 2012.

These companies should use their buying power to demand better conditions for the workers who make the products they sell.