Thursday, May 10, 2007

May 10

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the Kader Industrial Company fire, which killed and injured hundreds of young Thai workers who had labored to produce cheap stuffed and plastic toys for Tyco, Kenner, Disney and other US-based companies. The Kader factory was a hastily constructed outpost in the export processing zone of Buddha-monthom, located about 20 kilometers from Bangkok. The factory drew workers -- most of whom were young women -- from the rural provinces of the country, where economic opportunities were constrained by the country’s rapid industrialization. In return for shifts that stretched at times to 19 hours, these workers as little as $2.40 per day.

The blaze, which began in a room used to store finished products, quickly spread throughout the complex and trapped the workers, who could not leave through doors and windows that were deliberately locked and obstructed. The building itself did not have automatic sprinklers, fire extinguishers or functioning alarms; moreover, it was constructed with complete disregard for building codes (which were, in any case, not enforced). As a consequence, while many of victims were killed by smoke inhalation, many others perished when the frail building collapsed.

Survivor Lampan Taptim described the blaze in a report issued by the International Conference on Free Trade Unions:
There was the sound of yelling about a fire. I tried to leave the section but the supervisor told me to get back to work. My sister who worked on the fourth floor with me pulled me away and insisted we try to get out. We tried to go down the stairs and got to the second floor. We found that the stairs had already caved in. There was a lot of yelling and confusion. I couldn't go down further. In desperation I went back up to the windows and went back and forth looking down below. The smoke was thick and I picked the best place to jump in a pile of boxes. My sister jumped too. She died.
The fact that the Kader factory produced children’s toys gave the tragedy an added dimension of horror. A melted Bart Simpson doll -- one of the most popular items produced by Kader -- became the symbol for the fire, appearing on labor posters and other memorials to the 188 who died and 500 who were injured.

Accountability for the disaster was distributed inequitably. Accused of starting the fire with a discarded cigarette, a single worker, Viroj Yusak, received a ten year jail sentence from a Thai court. Fourteen company executives were acquitted of all charges of negligence, even though they had been warned by the Thai Labor Ministry to improve safety standards.

A decade later, the Kader Industrial Company was fined the equivalent of $12,300 for the deadliest industrial fire in history.