Mostafa Kamal Majumder :
The death of yet another 112 workers in Saturday’s devastating fire at the Tazreen factory in Ashulia, Savar, has brought to the fore safety and security of three million garment workers – most of them women – under scrutiny putting buyers in Europe and the USA under pressure as to why they order for garment products from factories that do not ensure proper working environment.
Although the government has declared a mourning day today (Tuesday, November 27) to grieve the deaths, and taken some measures along with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) to help the families of the dead, labour rights activists at home and abroad find the working conditions in garment factories unacceptable.
Witness accounts said the fire started in a warehouse on the ground floor that was used to store yarn. It quickly spread up the building, which was nine stories high, with the top three floors under construction. Though most workers had left for the day when the fire started, an industry official said, at least 600 workers were still inside, working overtime.
Most of the workers who died were on the first and second floors, fire officials have been quoted to have said, because there were not enough exits for them to get out and none that opened to the outside. The factory had three interior staircases to the ground floor, sources said.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, the second-largest exporter of clothing after China, has a poor fire safety record. Since 2006, more than 500 workers have died in factory fires, according to Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group in Amsterdam. Experts say many of the fires could have easily been avoided if the factories had taken the right precautions. Many factories are in cramped neighbourhoods and have too few fire escapes, and they widely flout safety measures.
Activists say that global clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap and those sold by Walmart need to take responsibility for the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes. Ineke Zeldenrust, the international coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign has said, ‘‘These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work which are death traps.’’ ‘‘Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence,’’ he said.
Bodies of many victims were burned beyond recognition and it would take time to identify them. One survivor, Mohammad Raju, 22, who worked on the fifth floor, said he escaped by climbing out of a third-floor window onto the bamboo scaffolding that was being used by construction workers. But he said he lost his mother, who also worked on the fifth floor, when they were making their way down.
‘‘It was crowded on the stairs as all the workers were trying to come out from the factory,’’ Raju said. ‘‘There was no power supply, it was dark, and I lost my mother in the dark. I tried to search for her for 10 to 15 minutes but did not find her.’’
Bangladesh exports about $18 billion worth of garment a year and has helped the country’s balance of payments in a big way for the last two decades. Employees in the factories are among the world’s lowest-paid, with entry-level workers making the government-mandated minimum wage of about $37 a month or slightly above.
Garment workers staged mass protests on Monday to demand an end to “deathtrap” labour conditions after Bangladesh’s worst-ever textile factory fire, as a new blaze sparked fresh panic and terror.
Meanwhile, as the blaze in Ashulia was brought under control another fire broke out on Monday in a 12-storey building near housing four different garment factories near the Uttara area of Dhaka city. It was brought under control within hours, police said. There has been no reports of deaths.
In yet another development two garment workers were arrested reportedly as they tried to set fire to a garment factory in Ashulia where more than 5000 factories are in operation. Their arrest has fuelled suspicion as to whether the fire incidents were acts of sabotage.
Fires in garment factories are sadly all too frequent occurrences. More than 120 people were killed in June 2010 when a fire destroyed six buildings – including a factory — in the Bangladeshi capital. A possible cause of that fire was cooking for a wedding.
Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation, has been quoted to have said, mid-level management of the garment factories are mostly concerned with how many clothes can be produced and forget the safety issues.
Poor governance is to be blamed for the recurrence of fire in garment factories. It is time to ask the concerned authorities why they failed to ensure that every factory had adequate fire safety precautions and why fire safety drills were not practised at regular intervals. Although the overall responsibility falls on the government, the BGMEA should take a major part of the blame, for the failure to prevent devastating fire incidents.