26 Bangladesh western brands workers died in factory fire
Western brands in Bangladesh safety push
By Jonathan Birchall in New York and Amy Kazmin in New Delhi
WESTERN clothing brands are having to confront the dismal safety record of Bangladesh’s garment industry after 26 workers last week died in a factory fire.
The blaze, which injured at least another 100, broke out on the 9th floor of a factory owned by the Hameem Group, which employs thousands of workers making garments for companies such as Gap, JC Penney and Phillips-Van Heusen.
Survivors complained that locked doors – ostensibly closed to prevent theft – forced panicked workers to jump from the roof, or try unsuccessfully to escape by a rope.
The tragedy follows another fire in February, when 21 workers perished in a factory that produces sweaters for clients including Sweden’s H&M. The fires have explosed the limitations of a decade-long effort by top brands to monitor workplace conditions at their suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh.
Gap, for example, audited Hameem’s factory this summer, and its requirements include clearly marked, unblocked fire exits. Just one week before the latest fire, Western brand representatives, factory owners, government officials and labour activists, had met in Dhaka to discuss the urgent need to reduce fire hazards in the garment industry, which accounts for 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports.
“The buyers must take responsibility in terms of the prevention of these kinds of incidents,” said Korshed Alam, director of the Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom, a Dhaka-based labour rights group working closely with local unions. “These factories are solely producing for western consumers.”
The accident comes at a sensitive time for Bangladesh’s garment industry as tensions between workers and factory owners rise over a recent government-mandated wage increase.
Although the wage increase came into affect in November, labour activists say some factories are trying to avoid the increase, with tactics like re-classifying workers at lower levels that draw lower pay, or by withdrawing other benefits.
In Chittagong, where 70 factories produce clothes for western brands, violent clashes last week between workers and police left three dead, and more than 250 injured.
The labour tensions come as Bangladesh has emerged as a popular low-cost alternative to China for garment production. In the four months from July to October, the country’s garment exports jumped almost two-fifths to $6.8bn.
Since the Hameem fire, the three US brands with closest links to the factory have called on the company to ensure an independent investigation into the accident, and support for the victims and their families. They have also said they will participate in a review of fire safety at other factories, to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.
Mr Alam said radical changes would be needed to prevent more accidents and that there needed to be a “long-run plan to deal with the whole fire and safety issue”.
Many Bangladeshi garment factories are currently housed in multi-story buildings that were not originally constructed for industrial use, and do not comply with building codes for industries.
The factories often run on electrical systems not geared for the huge demand from thousands of machines, making them prone to electrical fires. Workers also receive little training on what to do in an emergency.
Ineke Zeldenrust, an activist with the Clean Clothes Campaign, a labour rights group, also says factory doors are routinely locked to prevent theft of the garments.
“Even if you have a half decent building, time and again, you hear from witnesses that emergency exits were locked,” she says.
The CCC estimates that around 200 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in similar fires over the past five years, including 64 workers who perished in 2005, when the Spectrum clothing factory collapsed.
Peter McAllister, director of the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative, whose corporate members include UK high street names, said the latest deaths were a “damning indictment” of conditions in the country.
“With each new incident it becomes clearer that the garment industry in Bangladesh is in a crisis,” said Mr McAllister.
© 2010 Financial Times
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