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Jax Hts group blasts Walmart after Bangladeshi factory blaze

Rafael Samarez (r.), co-founder of the street vendor advocacy group Vamos Unidos, speaks at a protest condemning Walmart for its association with a factory in Bangladesh where more than 100 people perished in a fire. Photo by Rebecca Henely
TimesLedger Newspapers

About 40 Bangladeshi activists and their allies gathered at the Jackson Heights plaza on 37th Road and 74th Street to condemn retail giant Walmart for its ties with a clothing factory in Bangladesh, where at least 117 workers died in a fire.

“We’re outraged by this,” said Fahd Ahmed, of the Jackson Heights-based activist group Desis Rising Up & Moving. “We’re here to demand a respect for workers.”

The Tazreen Fashion factory, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, caught fire Nov. 24 in what may have been an electrical short circuit. The fire, which burned into the next day, killed at least 117 workers who were either trapped in the building due to the lack of exits or died later in hospitals after trying to jump from the upper floors, making it the deadliest factory fire in Bangladesh history. The factory had made clothes for Walmart as well as Sears and Disney.

Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world after China.

Walmart released a statement Nov. 26 expressing its sorrow for the victims’ families. The nation’s largest retailer said the factory was no longer authorized to make clothes for Walmart and a supplier had done so without Walmart’s permission. Walmart cut ties with the supplier that day.

“The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh,” Walmart said.

But many speakers at the rally, held near the commercial district for the neighborhood’s significant Bangladeshi population, accused Walmart of deliberately skimping on fire safety upgrades for the factory. Ahmed quoted a New York Times report that said a Walmart director had nixed electrical and fire safety improvements to about 4,500 factories as too expensive.

Walmart told The Times the quotes were taken out of context.

“They make their profits off the dead bodies of workers,” said DRUM member Saima Khan through a translator.

City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) blamed Walmart for the fire and said corporate greed was responsible for substandard conditions overseas.

“It affects your heart to know that so many lives were lost so senselessly,” Dromm said.

He compared the Tazreen fire to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 garment workers in Lower Manhattan and inspired legislation that improved factory safety standards in America. Former state Sen. Serphin Maltese holds an annual memorial for the fire, which killed three of his relatives, in Middle Village.

“This is why we don’t need Walmart here,” Dromm said, referring to the company’s push to open a store in New York City. “We already had a fire here.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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