Mumbia – More than 100 people died Saturday and Sunday in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, in one of the worst industrial tragedies in that country.
It took firefighters more than 17 hours to put out the blaze at the factory, Tazreen Fashions, after it started Saturday evening, a retired fire official said by telephone from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. At least 111 people were killed and scores of workers were taken to hospitals with burns and smoke inhalation injuries.
“The main difficulty was to put out the fire; the sufficient approach road was not there,” said the retired official, Salim Nawaj Bhuiyan, who now runs a fire safety company in Dhaka. “The fire service had to take great trouble to approach the factory.”
Bangladesh’s garment industry, the second largest exporter of clothing after China, has a notoriously poor record of fire safety. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in garment factory fires, according to Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group based in Amsterdam. Experts say many of the fires could have been easily avoided if the factories had taken the right precautions. Many factories are in cramped neighborhoods, have too few fire escapes and widely flout safety measures. The industry employs more than three million workers in Bangladesh, mostly women.
Activists say that global clothing brands need to take responsibility for working conditions in Bangladeshi factories that produce the clothes that they sell.
“These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps,” Ineke Zeldenrust, the international coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement. “Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence.”
The fire at the Tazreen factory in Savar, northwest of Dhaka, started in a warehouse on the ground floor and quickly spread up the building, which Reuters reported is nine stories high. The two-year-old factory employed about 1,500 workers and had sales of $35 million a year, according to information on the company’s Web site. It made T-shirts, polo shirts and fleece jackets.
Most of the workers who died were on the first and second floors and were killed, fire officials said, because there were not enough exits for them to get out.
“The factory had three staircases, and all of them were down through the ground floor,” said Maj. Mohammad Mahbub, the operations director for the fire department, according to The Associated Press. “So the workers could not come out when the fire engulfed the building.”
In a brief phone call, Delowar Hossain, the managing director of the Tuba Group, the parent company of Tarzeen Fashions, said he was too busy to comment. “Pray for me,” he said and then hung up.
Television news reports showed badly burned bodies lined up on the floor in what appeared to be a government building and showed the injured receiving treatment in hallways of local hospitals. One survivor, Mukta Begum, told Al Jazeera that she and a male colleague escaped by jumping out of a window.
A document posted on the company’s Web site showed that an “ethical sourcing” official for Walmart flagged “violations and/or conditions which were deemed to be high risk” at the factory in May 2011, though it did not specify the nature of the infractions. The notice said that the factory had been given an “orange” grade and that any factories given three such assessments in two years from their last audit would not receive any orders from Walmart for one year.
Bangladesh exports about $18 billion worth of garments and is a big supplier to companies like Walmart, H&M and Tommy Hilfiger. Workers in the country’s factories are among the lowest-paid in the world with entry-level workers making a government-mandated minimum wage of about $37 a month.
Tensions have been running high between workers, who have been demanding an increase in minimum wages, and factory owners and the government. Earlier this year, a union organizer, Aminul Islam, was found tortured and killed outside Dhaka.