Fire survivor lobbies for Bangladesh worker safety

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Australian retailers are being urged to take more responsbility for the workers producing their products in developing countries. 

A survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh that killed over 100 people in 2012 is in Australia, lobbying retailers to take more responsbility for the workers producing their products in developing countries.

Sumi Abedin is asking clothing outlets to sign an accord to ensure working standards in Bangladesh factories are improved, with over 1800 workers killed in incidents over the past decade.

Abby Dinham has the story.

In November 2012 Sumi Abedin jumped from a three-storey window to escape a factory fire that killed 112 of her colleagues

She says the fire doors at the Dhaka factory she worked in had been locked, after workers heard reports of a fire and attempted to leave their stations.

Ms Abedin broke her wrist and her leg, and has not worked in a factory since from fear the same thing will happen again.

She's in Melbourne this week to bring the plight of Bangladesh factory workers to the spotlight.

"I jumped from third floor because I thought that considering this fire I will not survive. I jumped not to save my life but to save my body so at least my parents could come and identify my body," she said.

Her visit comes on the eve of the one year anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building that housed numerous garment factories.

The collapse killed over 1100 workers.

It also provoked consumers in the developed world to start taking note of just where their clothes were being made.

Ms Abedin says a year on awareness has improved, but working conditions have not.

"I believe a few of them know their clothes are coming from Bangladesh, but I think they should know who is making their clothes and under what circumstances," she said.

Labour costs in Bangladesh are among the cheapest in the world.

Over 70 per cent of Australia's imports come from China, but rises in incomes there have led to rises in production costs, and prices.

Oxfam Australia's Daisy Gardener says this means the demand for Bangladesh-made products is increasing and factory owners are keen to ensure that demands are being met.

"What we see is retailers like the Just Group is demaning very low prices of their factories in Bangladesh and they're also asking very fast turn around times," said Ms Gardener, "and this kind of pressure puts pressure onto factories and workers and actually creates unsafe working places."

Last year the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord was established, to make signatories liable for factory repairs and workers' rights.

Eight Australian retailers have signed it.

Others including the Just Group - the parent company of Just Jeans - have opted to join a separate Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

The documents are similar in intention - to guarantee Bangladesh workers' rights and safety - but Oxfam's Daisy Gardener says there's one important difference.

"Under the alliance which the Just Group have signed so the inspection reports for factories remain secretive so we're not able to tell what problems have been found in factories and how they've been addressed."

Australian retailers neither the alliance nor the accord are the silver bullets they're made out to be.

Executive director of the Australian Retailer's Association, Russell Zimmerman, says factory owners often present the best-case scenario to inspectors.

And he says the Australian government should use diplomatic efforts to reduce overseas worker exploitation.

"I think it's up to the government to ensure, from a perspective of our government talking to the governments overseas to ensure that they are on their supply chains ensuring they're not using sweat shops overseas."

But Mr Zimmerman says keeping the factories running in Bangladesh is a priority.

A member Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Kalpona Akter, says the people of Bangladesh want their jobs, but on their terms.

"We need these jobs, but it is time to say we want these jobs with dignity. And the dignity comes with a living wage a union voice and safe working place.

"A consumer can play a great role to ensure those, and how it is? Please buy the clothes made in bangladesh but at the same time raise your voice and tell your companies they should pay more per garment so our workers can get a decent wage."

She says on average factory workers in Bangladesh do a 6 day week, working shifts of about 12 hours.

All for a $68 pay check at the end of the month.

Source SBS

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