Labour rights groups say they are "disturbed" after a fire that broke out yesterday (2 February) at a Bangladesh garment factory supplying fashion retailers H&M and JC Penney that was "on track" with remedial action following an inspection by the US-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

According to local reports, the fire broke out at the Matrix Sweaters factory in Gazipur at around 7.30am in the morning and took firefighters around four hours to extinguish. The fire is said to have broken out on the seventh floor of the factory, but the timing meant that most workers had not arrived for their shifts so the factory was largely empty.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labor Rights Forum, the Maquila Solidarity Network, and the Worker Rights Consortium said they were "deeply disturbed to hear of another serious fire breaking out at a garment factory in Bangladesh". Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and US retailer JC Penney are the two customers named so far. 

The Matrix Sweaters factory was originally inspected by the US-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety around two years ago and, according to the labour groups, a fire safety inspection report from May 2014 shows a large number of "life-threatening safety hazards" were found, including a lack of adequate fire exits, no fire doors, no sprinklers, insufficient smoke alarms, collapsible gates and lockable doors at the exits, non-enclosed stairwells, and numerous electrical safety risks. 

The Alliance had required that these repairs be completed by September 2014 – six months after the initial inspection. In a report on its website, the group details the progress of safety renovation at Matrix Sweaters as "on track", which it defines as "progressing adequately."

The Alliance does not provide details on the progress of repairs at inspected factories, but the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which carried out follow-up inspections, provides an up-to-date Corrective Action Plan (CAP) for the factory. This CAP, which was most recently updated on Monday (1 February), indicates that none of the hazards that pose the greatest danger to the safe exit of workers during a fire had been fully remedied. It is also understood to show numerous electrical safety repairs that the factory had failed to complete.

The labour groups say that 63% of the mandatory safety renovations are still incomplete at Matrix Sweaters, with original deadlines long ago breached, some of which they claim extend back to the middle of 2014.

A spokesperson for the Alliance confirmed it had conducted the first inspection on the building in 2014 and recommended several essential safety improvements. In June 2015, a remediation verification visit indicated that Matrix had completed 25% of its required repairs, with an additional 62% of repairs in progress. Yet to be completed was the installation of fire doors, automatic sprinklers and fire detection systems, which the spokesperson said allowed the fire to spread. The Alliance is currently conducting a follow-up inspection to gauge additional progress.

"As we have seen from the dramatic decline in serious fire incidents since the launch of international safety initiatives including the Alliance, a reduction in fire risk, injury and death has resulted from our efforts – yet there remain hazards still to be addressed under the remediation programme," the spokesperson added. "These hazards are further complicated by infrastructure issues in Bangladesh, such as a lack of access to water supply and overcrowding of buildings, which complicate efforts to extinguish fires when they occur – further underscoring the need for our work."

The Alliance said that along with its 27 member companies it has formally severed ties with 26 factories that have failed to comply with standards.

"While much progress is being made in Bangladesh ready-made garment factories, this fire highlights the need for continued, collaborative efforts to ensure that all factories are thoroughly remediated, with the greatest possible emphasis on empowering workers with the safety training they need to respond in an emergency."

Outstanding safety issues

Sam Maher of the Clean Clothes Campaign expressed relief that the fire didn't result in another tragedy on the scale of the Tazreen factory fire of 2012. However, she added: "This is more down to luck than anything else – had the fire broken out just a few hours later, it is more than possible that workers would have found themselves trapped. We urge all buyers from Bangladesh, including those who signed up to the Accord or the Alliance, to do more to get these vital repairs done without delay."

This is the second fire to break out at Matrix Sweaters; the first, in 2010, led to the death of one worker.

Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said the fire is a stark reminder that factory safety issues haven't been solved in Bangladesh, even in those factories that directly supply foreign fashion brands.

"This fire is also a reminder that paying to fix factories is as important as inspecting them. It is not enough to identify deficiencies. Factory owners and brands are locked in a stalemate over the costs of remediation that should be urgently resolved," she said. "Upgrading Bangladesh's export garment sector so that all workers are employed in safe conditions that meet minimum standards will require bigger, more comprehensive solutions, generated by a coalition of global fashion brands, their Bangladeshi suppliers, governments, labor unions, and civil society."

A spokesperson for H&M told just-style that its team in Dhaka was closely monitoring the situation. "Fire and building safety is very important to us and we have been working with fire and building safety for many years and was the first company to sign the global Fire and building safety agreement with IndustriAll."

JC Penney said it had also been made aware of the factory fire and that its local Bangladesh office has been working in cooperation with Matrix and local officials to determine the cause.

"We are relieved to learn that there was no loss of life and any injuries sustained are non-life-threatening. It is our understanding that Matrix received prior fire safety training by representatives of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The training proved critical in educating factory workers on the proper procedures to follow during an emergency evacuation," a spokesperson added. 

The fire broke out just days after representatives from the EU, US, Canada and the International Labour Organization (ILO) expressed concerns that many "priority areas" still need to be tackled by the Bangladesh Government to improve labour rights, health and safety, and responsible business conduct in the country's ready-made garment sector.

Key Bangladesh factory safety issues still not fixed

It also coincided with a report from four labour rights groups raising concerns about long delays in safety renovations at H&M's supplier factories in Bangladesh.