Viewpoint: Bangladesh factory fire highlights need for change
As many as 111 people lost their lives in the blaze that swept through Tazreen Fashion
It is almost two years to the day since 29 people perished in a fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh - and it would appear that little has been done in the intervening period to tackle the industry's safety issues.
Indeed, the death toll rose again at the weekend when as many as 111 people were killed and another 100 injured, as a blaze swept through Tazreen Fashion Ltd, based in Ashulia on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka.
More than half of the company's 2,000 workers were at the premises when the fire broke out on Saturday evening, with many said to have jumped to their deaths trying to escape from the eight-storey building. Others, unable to escape the blaze, were burned alive.
The fire, which is believed to have been started by an electrical short circuit, is said to be the worst ever in the history of Bangladesh's US$20bn export-earning clothing industry.
Tazreen Fashion, a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, supplied customers including retailer C&A and Hong Kong based sourcing giant Li & Fung. And it now joins an infamous roll-call of names including Garib & Garib, That's It Sportswear (a unit of the Hameem group) and Eurotex where garment workers have lost their lives in factory fires.
But while the disaster has put the issue of fire and building safety issues back into the spotlight, just what is being done to address the root causes of the problem in the ready-made clothing industry?
Not enough, it would seem.
After 29 workers lost their lives and more than 100 others were wounded at the That's It Sportswear factory in December 2010, there were numerous calls for an overhaul of safety regulations in the Bangladesh apparel industry.
But it wasn't until earlier this year - and following widespread criticism for their seeming lack of action - that first signs of progress were seen.
New fire safety standards
US clothing maker PVH (owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands), and German retailer Tchibo have taken steps to introduce new fire safety standards at their supplier factories in Bangladesh, working closely with local and international unions and other labour rights groups.
PVH Corp committed $1m as part of a two-year scheme focusing on fire and building safety. Its plans include establishing an in-factory training programme, setting up factory health and safety committees, reviewing existing building regulations and enforcement, and developing a mechanism for workers to report health and safety risks.
And Tchibo intends to establish independent building inspections, worker rights training, public disclosure and a review of safety standards as part of its fire and building safety programme.
Retailer Gap Inc, meanwhile, has decided to go it alone. Its own factory monitoring scheme outlined in October involves hiring a fire safety inspector to oversee Bangladesh garment factories making its brands, and loaning vendors up to $20m for safety improvements.
But trade unions and labour rights organisations want to see international brands and retailers do more to address fire safety issues in garment factories around the world.
"As we yet again mourn the loss of scores of garment workers in Bangladesh, we demand that brands step up their game," says Ineke Zeldenrust from worker rights group Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC).
"Tragedy after tragedy underlines our belief that simple, cosmetic changes to existing programmes simply aren't enough. Action needs to be taken to address the root causes of these fires."
The CCC, for example, is calling for independent and transparent inspections, an obligatory buildings upgrade, and a review of all existing laws and safety regulations.
It also wants brands and retailers to commit to paying prices that can cover the costs involved, and the direct involvement of trade unions in worker training on health and safety.
But there is also a need for employers and the Bangladesh government to take their share of responsibility too. The government must carry out an immediate investigation of the causes of the fire and prosecute those whose negligence has led to the fatalities.
It must also invest in a country-wide programme of inspections to ensure that the buildings and their wiring are fit for purpose and meet safety standards.
All factory owners in Bangladesh should immediately review their safety procedures, carry out checks on the building and electrical safety and, most importantly, start working with trade unions to train their workers on safety procedures and allow space for workers to voice their concerns.
A lot at stake
There's a lot at stake for Bangladesh's garment industry - the world's second largest apparel supplier - if its failings continue to go unaddressed.
The sector is the country's largest foreign currency earner, contributing more than 16% of gross domestic product (GDP), nearly 80% of total export receipts, and providing direct employment to around 4m people, of whom 80% are women.
There are 5,400 garment factories, mostly located at Dhaka, Saver, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chittagong, producing for international brands and retailers like Gap, Tesco, JC Penney, Wal-Mart, H&M, Kohl's and Marks & Spencer.
But more than 700 apparel workers here have now died since 2006, with unsafe buildings, faulty wiring, absent or locked emergency exits, stairways blocked with goods and production materials, and poor ventilation usually to blame. It is also claimed that safety regulations are widely ignored.
Part of the problem seems to be that many Bangladeshi garment production units are located in multi-storey buildings, which may have structural problems as well as being difficult to evacuate in the event of an emergency.
Many also lack adequate access and exit routes so that workers can swiftly be evacuated, and emergency teams and equipment can quickly be brought to the site.
For any reputable western brand or retailer sourcing from the country, regular auditing and inspections should surely expose such issues, along with checks on workplace safety and an examination of all plant and machinery. But the concern now is that their voluntary and confidential monitoring programmes would appear to have failed.
Bangladesh's low labour rates, which have helped the country join the global supply chain for basic clothing, are also seen as part of the problem. In simple terms, factory owners are often tempted to take on huge orders on short lead times, sub-contracting further down the supply chain to meet delivery dates or profit margins. Something has to give, and that something is attention to safety.
Buyers already have to contend with worries about disruption caused by strikes and protests against long working hours and very low wages, and without assurances, they will surely start to question whether Bangladesh is a place where workers are safe to make their clothes.
But it's also important to remember that the fire in Bangladesh was not an isolated incident.
In September, more than 300 apparel and footwear workers were killed in two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan - one of the worst industrial incidents ever to have happened in the country.
The following catalogue of garment factory disasters in Bangladesh highlights the urgent need for change:
- The collapse of the Spectrum factory in April 2005, killing 64 workers and injuring 84 more;
- A fire caused by an electrical short circuit at a garment factory in Chittagong in February 2006, which killed 61 workers and injured around 100;
- The collapse of a five-story building two days later in the Tejgaon industrial area after unauthorised renovations to the upper storeys, killing 22 workers and injuring 50 more;
- An electrical short circuit at a building housing three garment factories in Gazipur in March 2006, which led to a stampede when workers attempting to escape were blocked by boxes;
- A fire at Reach Fashion in August 2007 gutted facilities and destroyed clothing;
- Also in August 2007, a fire trapped at least 50 workers at Taiwan-owned Jung Sign Textiles at the Dhaka Export Processing Zone;
- In March 2010, a fire at knitwear supplier Garib & Garib killed 21 workers and injured another 30;
- December 2010 saw 29 people killed at a blaze at That's It Sportswear, a unit of the Hameem group;
- A year later, in December 2011, two workers perished and over 50 were injured in a stampede triggered by panic after a boiler explosion at Eurotex;
- At least 111 people were killed and another 100 injured in a factory fire at Tazreen Fashion in November 2012.
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