The fire highlights the urgent need for enforcement of fire and building safety regulations and credible safety monitoring in India

The fire highlights the urgent need for enforcement of fire and building safety regulations and credible safety monitoring in India

A fire that swept through a bag factory in the Indian capital Delhi at the weekend, killing 43 workers, has led to renewed calls for enforcement of factory fire and building safety regulations.

According to media reports, the fire broke out early on Sunday morning. The factory was in a narrow residential area of Delhi in a building that housed manufacturing units for multiple products, including garments. Many of the factory's workers, for a large part migrants and some of them minors, were sleeping at the factory when the fire started. 

It remains unclear whether the factory was producing for export or the growing internal Indian consumer market – although the  Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) believes the factory in question did not have a "licence or permission to operate, and was producing non-branded merchandise for the local market rather than any global or UK brands."

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, "blatant safety violations hindered workers from leaving the factory safely." 

One of the two staircases in the building was reportedly blocked by stored product, windows were barred, and the one accessible exit was locked. According to officials the factory lacked any safety licenses and many sources allege that the factory as a whole was operating illegally. Rescue operations were further hampered by the narrow streets of the area in which the factory was located.

"The manifestly unsafe factory highlights the urgent need for enforcement of fire and building safety regulations and credible safety monitoring in India," the labour rights group says.

It adds: "Existing inspection systems, including the corporate social auditing firms used by multinationals to check on their supplier factories, have thus far failed to structurally improve factory safety across the country." 

The CCC continues: "These deaths furthermore raise the question as to why it is even possible that workers are trapped in a factory fire on a weekend night, while the factory was not operating.

"If workers were sleeping at the factory because they could not afford housing or transportation costs, then this tragedy sheds a light on the poverty wages pervasive throughout the industrial sector, especially among vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and minors."   

However, the ETI says it is not uncommon for migrant workers in subcontracted tiers of the supply chain to work and live at the same premises. "The use of migrant labour is increasing, and many migrant workers work very long hours, live in poor, unsafe conditions, and are often exploited by employers, contractors and landlords," it adds. 

The Delhi government has announced INR1m (EUR12,700 or US$14,113)) as compensation to the deceased and INR100,000 for the injured, and committed to covering medical expenses of injured workers. The government of India has added INR200,000 for the families of the deceased and INR50,000 for the injured.

"While initial compensation measures have already been announced, more is needed to ensure adequate fair and full compensation to the affected workers and their families," the CCC says.

It adds: "Further steps to provide justice to the workers are needed and seem to be under way. The Delhi government has ordered a magistrate level inquiry and charges were filed against the building's owner. 

"This tragedy should be the incentive to bring an end to impunity for gambling with workers' lives, by operating illegal, unsafe, and abusive workplaces."

Likewise, the ETI notes: "This tragic event highlights how important it is for responsible businesses to carry out due diligence within their global supply chains, particularly in the lower tiers where subcontracting and labour rights abuses are most likely to be prevalent, and where there is least visibility."