1993 May 10th. Thailand, near Bangkok: Fire in a doll
factory injured 500 people, at least 188 died .The worst
factory fire in history took place at the Kader Industrial
toy factory on the outskirts of the Thai capital of Bangkok.
Officially 188 workers, most of them young women from impoverished
rural families, died in the blaze. Another 469 were injured;
many seriously and permanently, after they were forced to
leap from second, third and fourth floors of the buildings
to avoid being burnt to death.
Hundreds of workers were packed into each of the three
buildings that collapsed. There were no fire extinguishers,
no alarms, no sprinkler systems and the elevated walkways
between the buildings were either locked or used as storage
areas. The buildings themselves were death traps, constructed
from un-insulated steel girders that buckled and gave way
in less than 15 minutes. Those who attempted to flee through
the narrow ground floor exits found them jammed shut.
There were many reactions to this terrible tragedy. The
international media barely mentioned the fire. Inside Thailand,
however, there was widespread anger. The toy factory, owned
by Thai, Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors, was symbolic
of the exploitation associated with globalised production.
Major toy corporations such as Tyco, Kenner and Arco faxed
their orders to Kader, complete with the detailed specifications
required to market the goods in the US and Europe. None
of them had the slightest interest, however, in the safety
standards, wages or conditions for the factory workers who
produced the plastic-moulded toys.
The International Committee of the Fourth International
(ICFI) recognised the significance of the disaster and dispatched
a reporting team to Thailand to investigate. A series of
articles, which initially appeared in the newspapers of
the ICFI and was later published as a book Industrial Inferno:
The story of the Thai Toy Factory Fire, detailed the immediate
causes of the fire, allowed survivors and the victims’
families to speak, and exposed the official cover-up and
the inaction of various trade union leaders.
More fundamentally, the articles pointed to the underlying
changes in world capitalist economy that made such tragedies
inevitable. The previous worst industrial fire—at
the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York in 1911—became
the focus for struggles by working people that succeeded
in placing limited restraints on the operations of capital.
But under conditions where globally mobile investors were
not tied to a particular country, let alone to one factory,
the prospects for such piecemeal reform had become nil.
“Companies such as Kader Holdings need to move their
operations rapidly to take advantage of the newest areas
of low-cost labour. That it why the Kader factory outside
Bangkok was never intended to be a permanent structure.
Cheap shoddy buildings, which failed to meet even the minimal
Thai construction requirements, were simply packed to overflowing
with workers and machines. Elementary safety precautions
were deemed to be unnecessary overheads.
“Thailand’s limited building and safety codes,
minimal wage levels and factory regulations are not enforced.
Indeed, the government in Thailand attracts foreign capital
to its shores by openly advertising the lack of restrictions
on the exploitation of workers. The Kader factory was no
aberration. All the horrors of nineteenth century European
capitalism—child labour, dirty and unsafe working
conditions, shanty housing—are on display everywhere
In contrast to those often well-meaning groups and individuals
in Thailand and elsewhere who argued that it was necessary
to pressure governments for change, the ICFI concluded that
the working class could only make advances to the extent
that it grounded its struggles on a global perspective aimed
at abolishing the capitalist system of exploitation.
“In semi-colonial countries such as Thailand, the
working class has no hope of gradually improving its conditions,
as was the case in the United States, following the Triangle
Shirtwaist fire in 1911. From the outset, the hundreds of
thousands of peasant youth drawn from the poverty-stricken
regions of Thailand to labour in the factories of Bangkok
face the necessity of developing a unified strategy with
workers in neighbouring Indochina, China and around the