Relatives try to console each other near a garment factory that caught fire… (Abir Abdullah / EPA )
NEW DELHI -- As Bangladesh struggles to improve its dismal industrial safety record after a massive building collapse last month, another garment industry disaster has raised new cries for reform.
Shortly before midnight Wednesday, a fire swept through a garment factory in the capital Dhaka, killing eight people including its managing director and a top police official. Initial reports suggested that the fire in the 11-story building was caused by a short circuit on the second floor that spread to the third and fourth floors, where the factory was located.
Mahbubur Rahman, managing director of the Tung Hai Sweater factory, was reportedly meeting with friends including a senior police official around 11 p.m. when the blaze erupted, trapping them. According to doctors and local fire officials, most victims died of suffocation on the staircase.
The death toll might have been far higher if workers hadn’t quit for the day. "The casualty was less as the factory was closed when the fire broke out,” an unnamed company supervisor told local reporters. Photographs showed thick black smoke bellowing out of the building’s second floor as firefighters worked to douse the fire, which blazed for about three hours.
The disaster follows the collapse in late April of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza, a massive building that housed five garment factories and a shopping complex. At least 900 people, mostly apparel workers, died in that disaster. In recent days, the government has promised to enact safety reforms, although some critics question its record on implementation.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China. In recent months, a string of disasters has led to self-reflection and foreign calls for reform as Western apparel companies battle charges that their production is built on exploitation.
“There’s a perception on the part of [Bangladeshi] manufacturers that they need to do something and cooperate with the government because of the stakes,” said M. Alimullah Miyan, vice chancellor with Dhaka’s International University of Business, Agriculture and Technology. “There could be some change. But at the same time, global brands also need to improve the margins they pay.”
Past reform campaigns and costly fire and safety regulations have been largely watered down or ignored, however, critics say. “We want to be hopful that we’ll see implementation and real change,” said Tessel Pauli, an activist with the Netherlands-based group Clean Clothes Campaign. “But it’s clear, given the unsafe record in the sector, I wonder if it will be enough really to affect the problem.”
The Bangladesh garment industry, a national golden goose, is politically well-connected. Clothing accounts for a whopping 80% of the country’s $24 billion in annual exports and employs 4 million people, with dozens of lawmakers closely linked to factory owners.
And though many Western apparel companies adopt codes of conduct, they’re keen to drive production costs down and maximize profit atop an industry of constantly changing subcontractors. Feeding all this are Western consumers looking for cheap deals.
The average wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 10 to 30 cents an hour, labor activists say, and many of the factories lack fire escapes, windows or emergency exits.
Garment factory fires have been a recurrent problem in Bangladesh, killing about 700 people since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Last year, at least 110 people were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, with another eight killed in January.
In a bid to burnish its reputation, allay safety fears and prevent foreign companies from buying elsewhere, Bangladesh on Wednesday said it was temporarily shuttering 16 factories in the capital and two in the southeastern port city of Chittagong. "We will close down factories deemed to be dangerous," Textiles and Jute Minister Abdul Latif Siddique said at a news conference.
It has also agreed in cooperation with the U.N.’s International Labor Organization to add 200 building inspectors within six months, retrain workers, repair problematic factories and introduce a bill in parliament allowing collective bargaining.
A related, if less publicized, concern for overseas customers is political instability. Garment production in Bangladesh was disrupted Thursday by a general strike, one of dozens this year, amid a deep social and political division between secularists and Islamist conservatives. On Monday, at least 20 people died after religious hard-liners, some reportedly chanting “Death to Atheists!” clashed with police in Dhaka.
The government is under growing economic and political pressure to show it’s responding to the safety crisis. Earlier this month, Walt Disney Co. said it would stop producing in Bangladesh by next April, along with Pakistan, Ecuador, Venezuela and Belarus, amid worker safety concerns. On Wednesday, the European Union's delegation in Bangladesh urged the government to improve working conditions “immediately.”
But critics said it remains to be seen how effective these proposed reforms will be. Bangladesh and much of South Asia face widespread corruption and a history of passing great-sounding laws that aren’t effectively implemented.
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Tanvi Sharma in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.