There have been spate of accidents recently in Bangladesh , resulting in deaths of several workers which has been attributed to the lamentable track record in the matter of factory safety.
Some of the accidents that have made headlines are:
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 stories of the building, 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 Ltd in August 2007 gutted facilities and destroyed clothing manufactured by Reach Fashion Ltd;
Also in August 2007, a fire trapped at least 50 workers at Taiwan-owned Jung Sign Textiles at the Dhaka Export Processing Zone.
In August 2009, another fire at Garib & Garib killed a fire fighter and injured seven people.
The most recent incident happened at the end of last month, when 21 workers were killed and up to 50 workers were injured following a fire at knitwear supplier Garib & Garib.
It is somewhat strange that such serious accidents should keep on happening so frequenty, particularly when these manufacturing units are being inspected by the representatives of international retailers, who buy their products. In fact, there is a specific provision of inspection of factories where the garments being manufactured and purchased by international retailers are inspected regularly and the safety standards in these factories are a matter of specific mention in the reports provided to the buyers.
As a matter of fact, Bangladeshi apparel industry has a lamentable track record when it comes to factory safety, especially fires. But where does the industry draw the line when it comes to apportioning blame to retailers and buyers? 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.
But for any reputable Western brand or retailer sourcing from the country, any issues should be exposed as part of the auditing process, along with regular checks on workplace safety and an examination of all plant and machinery. The inspection process would also ensure that all factories have adequate access and exit routes so that workers can swiftly be evacuated and emergency teams and equipment can quickly be brought to the site.
Swedish fashion giant H&M said its audit of the Garib & Garib factory in October 2009 didn't reveal any shortcomings on safety. But apparently US supermarket giant Wal-Mart and the Canadian company Marks Workwear House decided to stop ordering from the factory over its "lamentable" safety measures. Worryingly, even though they withdrew business from the factory over their concerns, they're also coming in for criticism for not doing more to prevent the subsequent disaster from happening.
None of the brands took sufficient measures," says international labour-rights group the Clean Clothes Campaign, "either by pushing the owner and the manufacturers' association BGMEA to take action or reporting to the Government, unions or other stakeholders." Does this mean not giving business to a non-compliant factory is now on a par with placing orders there? Clearly retailers and brands have a duty to workers in the factories where their clothes are made. But can they really be held responsible for the rest of the industry as well?
Lately, the workers unions and international labour-rights organisations have been demanding an overhaul of safety regulations in the Bangladesh apparel industry after a recent fire killed 21 people at a garment factory at the end of last month. An electrical short circuit was blamed for starting the blaze at knitwear supplier Garib & Garib, which left up to 50 workers injured. But according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, "Workers were trapped inside the burning building when emergency exits appeared locked, stairways blocked with goods and production materials, and ventilation in the building was poor." Fire fighters also reported that the factory's fire equipment was "virtually useless," it said. A fire in the same factory killed a fire fighter and injured seven in August 2009.
"We need a thorough review of how health and safety regulations are being implemented," said Amirul Haq Amin of the National Garment Workers Federation. "The fire at Garib & Garib is no exception. Everywhere the regulations are ignored. Unless we change the situation now, similar dramas will continue to happen." Brands such as H&M and the Italian Terranova, which source from the factory, have also been accused of sloppy monitoring of their own supply-chain safety rules.
An H&M spokesperson confirmed that its last audit didn't reveal any severe fire safety issues. But labour rights groups say US supermarket giant Wal-Mart and the Canadian work wear company Marks Work wear House stopped sourcing from the factory over its "lamentable" safety measures. The Clean Clothes Campaign accuses fashion brands, Government and manufacturers of "criminal negligence" for focusing on making money rather than worker welfare.
Unless the Government of Bangladesh takes a serious view of whole series of events and ensures that the safety of the workers is made fool-proof, nothing is likely to happen differently than what has been happening heretofore so far.
Only resolute action on the part of all international retailers to shun placing orders with garment exporters with proof labour safety measures can force both Bangladeshi garment exporters and Bangladeshi Government to see reason and act.
Originally published in The Stitch Times: April 2010