Bangladesh blaze points to hell of
garments trade By Syed Tashfin
DHAKA - Bangladesh observed a
national day of mourning on Tuesday following a
fire that killed more than 100 workers at a
readymade garments factory on Saturday and also to
mark the deaths on the same day of 26 people when
a flyover under construction in Chittagong
The fire at Tazreen Fashions
Ltd, a garments factory owned by the Bangladeshi
conglomerate Tuba Group, led to the death of
reportedly 111 workers, whose bodies were
recovered after the fire was brought under control
on Sunday morning, almost 11 hours after the blaze
broke out on the evening of November 24. Witnesses
and survivors alleged that the real number dead is
possibly much higher.
The worst industrial
disaster in Bangladesh's history has again
concern over the safety and disaster management
standards at most garments factories in the
country, many of which supply the Western world
with cheap and popular clothing.
reason for the blaze is not yet known, with Prime
Minister Sheikh Hasina raising the prospect of a
political motive while some survivors said they
had been promised before the tragedy that they
would receive on Sunday three-months' unpaid wages
and an unpaid standard bonus for the October Eid
Tazreen Fashions, located in a
rural area of Ashulia district nearly a three-hour
drive from Dhaka, occupies a nine-storied
building, with a space of nearly 1,500 square
meters on each floor. The ground floor, which
stored the factory's raw materials, had the only
entrance to the factory, with three staircases
leading to other floors.
main operations took place from the first to the
fifth floors, with the three remaining floors
still under construction. According to survivors
and witnesses, the fire broke out on the ground
floor around 6:15pm on Saturday. Manik Mia, who
was working on the fifth floor, escaped
immediately after hearing the fire warning siren.
"I managed to rush down the stairs and ran out of
the factory, not heeding what my production
manager had to say. But I also witnessed how
production managers of the first and second floors
were barring workers from leaving their
workstations, calling it a 'fire drill'," he said.
Although this seemed to ease the minds of
some workers, panic broke out about seven minutes
later when smoke began to billow upwards. Workers,
mostly female, stampeded to the first and second
floors in a bid to make it to the ground-floor
entrance. But as fire barred access to the stairs
and the only gates were also allegedly locked up
under instruction of management, possibly fearing
looting, the workers tried to break through
upstairs windows. Some tried to scale the pipes
outside the building and others jumped through
holes they managed to make by breaking large
exhaust fans on the first floor.
workers managed survived their falls from upper
floors with severe injuries. Others were not so
fortunate. According to fire department sources,
those "trapped on the first and second floors
could not come out as there were not enough
Witnesses claimed that the fire
department vehicles reached the spot around 9:30pm
on Saturday. The fire was brought under control
around 5am on Sunday.
After the recovery
work was suspended around Sunday evening, some
reporters and workers went into the charred
building. Mahfuzul Haque, a journalist with New
Age, told Asia Times Online, "I walked into the
second floor to find a skull. There was no skin on
it. The rest of the body was nowhere to be found.
Here and there lay body parts like hair, arms etc.
There were pieces of glass bangles all over the
floor, as mostly female workers had faced the
The incident has again brought
the working conditions of Bangladesh's apparels
industry, which earns US$19 billion a year in
revenue, into the international spotlight.
More than 500 Bangladeshi workers have
died in factory fires since 2006, according to
Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based
anti-sweatshop advocacy group. Such a list would
have been reduced if most of the nearly 3,000
apparel factories in Bangladesh, employing over 3
million workers, had met fire safety standards,
according to labor experts in Bangladesh.
"The manner in which the gates of the only
entrances to most factories are locked, thus
trapping thousands of workers inside the factory
once a shift begins - and also in the case of such
disasters or unrest - is a punishable offence
according to Bangladesh's Labour Act of 1965,"
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, assistant executive
director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies
told Asia Times Online.
He urged a proper
investigation by the five committees that have
been set up to investigate the tragedy.
"Inquiry committees were also formed
during earlier fires, like the one at Ha-meem
garments factory in December 2010 that claimed the
lives of at least 23 workers. But no concrete
report was made public later. This should not
happen this time," he said.
Fashion's parent company, Tuba Group, exports
apparel products to major brands like Walmart,
Carrefour and IKEA, according to its website. Its
Tazreen factory, which opened in 2009, employed
about 1,600 people to make polo shirts, fleece
jackets and T-shirts. These were exported to
countries like USA, Germany, Italy, France, the
Netherlands and others.
displays a document mentioning that Tazreen was
rated "orange", which stands for a high-risk
safety rating, following a May 2011 audit
conducted by an "ethical sourcing" assessor
assigned by Walmart, the world's largest retail
Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardner
said after the blaze that Walmart was "so far
unable to confirm that Tazreen is a supplier to
Walmart nor if the document referenced in the
article is in fact from Walmart."
York Times quoted the International Labour Rights
Forum, which tracks fires in the Bangladesh
garment industry, as saying that documents and
logos found in the debris indicated that the
factory produced clothes for Walmart's "Faded
Glory" line as well as for other American and
Mohiuddin, president of the Bangladesh Garment
Manufacturers and Exporters Association,
maintained at a press conference on Monday, "It is
a large, ultra-modern, compliant factory", while
also admitting that the production managers on the
first and second floors were at fault for not
letting the workers go during the disaster.
Mohiuddin suggested that the incident
could be sabotage, echoing comments by Prime
Minister Sheikh Hasina to parliament on Monday
that the fire was "pre-planned".
brought the parliament's attention to how on
Sunday, as the ashes of the Tazreen factory were
still warm, a worker at a Debonair garments
factory, also in Ashulia, set a fire inside her
then empty workplace. The fire was doused before
it could cause damage.
"I have seen video
footage of it recorded on the CCTV camera," Hasina
said. The worker, one Sumi Begum, "was paid 20,000
takas [US$246] for torching it. He who paid her
has also been arrested. But those who are behind
all these must be arrested." According to police,
Sumi was paid by a Debonair floor manager to start
The following day, a fire broke
out at a third factory in Dakhshin Khan, nearer
the center of Dhaka. No casualties were reported
in the incident.
Hasina also implied that
politicians belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, a member
of the opposition 18-party alliance, could be
behind such blazes, which in threatening the
garments industry also threaten to undermine the
country's most important foreign currency earner.
She referred to how anti-independent forces
(senior Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who collaborated
with and supported Pakistan at the time) set fire
to jute factories in Bangladesh during the 1971
war for independence.
"I have seen after
independence jute warehouses were set on fire. At
that time jute was the only product to earn
foreign currency. Now I see garment factories are
being set on fire." She believed the fire
incidents had direct links to recent communal
atrocities in Cox's Bazaar and attacks on the
police. "Police come first [on the list], then
come garment [factories], who's next?" bdnews24
reported Hasina saying.
Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend
magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.
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