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Public Statements


Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. GEORGE MILLER of California. Mr. Speaker, I recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh where more than 1,100 garment workers died and 2,000 were injured in the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24. Many Americans may remember the horrible pictures of workers being buried under tons of concrete from the collapsed building.

I learned a great deal about what must be done to improve safety conditions in the garment industry there. Bangladesh is the second largest garment-producing nation, employing over 4 million skilled and industrious workers, mostly women, at a minimum wage of $37 a month. I learned that many factories have continued to operate in unsafe residential or multistory commercial buildings even after the Rana Plaza collapse. I learned more about poor conditions created by a myriad of middlemen hired by retailers that pit one factory against the next, squeezing out the last few pennies per garment. I learned that Bangladesh garment workers subsidize those low prices with their lives.

I visited the hospital where there were scores of women, many with amputated legs and arms or who were suffering from brain damage from the collapse of that building where they were working and where they were locked inside. I met with a woman near Rana Plaza who was looking for her son even though the unidentifiable or the unclaimed workers had been buried in a mass grave.

And Rana Plaza is not an isolated case.

I visited with seven courageous women injured in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire that killed 112 workers last November. There were seven women who had to jump from the third and fourth floors of their factory because the factory supervisors locked the exits after the fire had started and had told them to go back to work or they would be fired, and the doors were locked. That was the policy of that factory and of many other factories. Just this week, we saw poultry workers in China locked in a factory after the fire had started; and they, too, perished in the fire. These were seven women who had to make the decision to jump from the third and fourth floors of this factory to save their lives. Tazreen produced garments for Walmart and many other American brands.

Listen to what the women told me:

Rehana jumped from the fourth floor window and was knocked unconscious. She broke her leg, and the doctors told her she will need to be on crutches for the rest of her life.

Reba was the breadwinner in her home. She jumped from the third floor. She cannot work because of the pain. Her husband is sick. She has two sons, one of whom just qualified for the military college, but she doesn't know if she can afford to keep him there; and until I prodded Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association, Reba had not received the promised stipend for those who were injured--6 months later.

Rowshanara jumped from the third floor and still has severe pain in her back and legs. She was visibly in pain after sitting too long while talking to us. She is single and gets by on loans. She has two teenage sons in school and doesn't want to force them to go to work, but she worries how she will get by.

Deepa worked on the third floor. She saw the fire, and tried to escape to the second floor. The factory manager padlocked the door and told everyone to keep working. Workers were crying and searching for a way out. A mechanic yelled to come to the east side of the building where he had created an exit. She jumped from the third floor and fell unconscious. She broke her left leg. She was 4 months pregnant, and she lost her baby.

Sumi decided to jump from the third floor rather than perish in the factory because she wanted her family to be able to identify her body, and that wouldn't happen if she were consumed in the fire. She broke her leg and arm and could not move. Her family borrowed money to pay for her medical bills before the association funds arrived. Two weeks before Rana Plaza, she came to the U.S. to urge retailers and brands to join the enforceable and binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Nazma said she would have died if she had waited 10 more minutes to jump. She saw the manager locking the gate to the second set of stairs and grabbed him by the collar to stop him, but he ignored her. She cut her arms while trying to get through a window to reach the bamboo scaffolding. She broke her backbone. She can't carry anything or do housework. She has three children. Her stipend went to medical care and to her children's education. Her 14-year-old son has had to leave school to try to find work.

I am grateful that these women had the courage to tell me their stories.

There is widespread agreement that if the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza collapse workers had had the right to refuse unsafe work, they would be alive today. Nobody, not even the factory, denied that that's the case; but for too long, the Bangladesh Government has blocked new unions. Only now, in facing the potential loss of trade preferences, the government has opened the door a crack. Twenty-seven new unions have been registered recently, reversing the trend in which only one union per year was registered, and there are 5,000 factories.

I met the leaders of some of these newly formed unions--young and serious workers--but only time will tell if the government lives up to its promise of union rights. In addition, the Obama administration will soon conclude its review of Bangladesh's trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. In my view, these preferences should be suspended.

The one message I have for the American holdouts who won't agree to these safety accords is: listen to the women from Bangladesh.

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