Locked in a Death Trap
As workers continue to succumb to factory fires, the government looks the other way.
The government in Bangladesh, factory owners and investors are under tremendous pressure to overhaul workplace safety in the aftermath of a recent factory fire. According to rough estimates by labor groups, more than 500 people have died in such factory fires since 2006. The fire incident of November 2012 at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. killed 112, and was one of the country’s worst industrial accidents. Following the tragedy, garment workers clashed with police, demanding compensation for the victims’ families and safer working conditions.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion annual exports, has become the mainstay of an economy that was once dependent on aid. However, low wages and sub-standard safety conditions remain a problem among many of the country’s roughly 5,000 apparel factories, which are squeezed for rock-bottom production costs. Bangladesh is attractive to foreign investors because it is amongst the world’s least expensive clothing production countries. The minimum wage for garment workers is less than $37 a month, thus severely hampering any progress.
In addition to suffering from low
wages, Bangladesh’s garment industry, the second-largest exporter of clothing after China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. According to government reports, the country exported $19 billion in garments last year. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires, according to Clean Clothes Company, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group based in Amsterdam. Bangladesh’s economy in recent years has been propelled by churning out lowcost garments for the West, which labor groups say has come at the cost of workers’ safety. Authorities have begun to review the nation’s 5,000 reg- istered garment factories and declare that they will withdraw permits from those that fail safety evaluations.
Tarzeen factory, that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was operating without a safety license and had been warned twice to improve safety conditions. According to an emergency services official, “We refused to renew the license because there was a lack of fire safety measures.” Abu Nayeem Mohammad Shahidullah, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence, told Reuters, “The fire safety certification expired on June 30, but the department did not renew it because fire safety provisions had not been put in place.” He added that in July a reminder was issued to the Tuba Group that handles the management of the factory. According to a Bangladeshi official, around 30 percent of the factory owners did not have fire-safety licenses, adequate fire extinguishers, hosepipes, water supplies and workers trained in emergency procedures.
Experts say many of the fire incidents could have easily been avoided if the factories had taken the right precautions. Most factories are located in cramped neighborhoods and have too few fire escapes. Blatantly ignoring safety precautions, the industry as a whole employs more than three million workers, most of them women.
The fire at the Tazreen factory in Savar, northwest of Dhaka, started in a warehouse on the ground floor that was used to store yarn, and quickly spread to the upper floors. The building was nine stories high, with the top three floors still under construction. Though most workers had left when the fire started, an industry official said as many as 600 workers were still inside, working overtime. The factory that produced T-shirts, polo shirts and fleece jackets, opened in May 2010, employed about 1,500 workers and recorded sales of $35 million a year, according to a document on the company’s website.
Most workers who died were on the first and second floors and were killed because there were not enough exits. Such working conditions imply that the men and women were working in death traps with no way out. The negligence on the part of the factory owners and government officials who failed to ensure safety standards, must be abandoned at once to safeguard the lives of workers. Asma Siddiqui is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues.