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    South Asia
     Nov 28, 2012

Bangladesh blaze points to hell of garments trade
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

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 collapsed.

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


raised international 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.

The 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 festival.

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.

The factory's 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.

Some 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 exits".

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 tragedy."

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.

Tazreen 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.

Tuba's website 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 company.

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."

The New 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 foreign companies.

Shafiul Islam 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".

Hasina 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 fire.

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.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.

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Blaze wakes Pakistan to industrial realities (Sep 15, '12)

Dhaka blaze adds to garment sector toll (Dec 16, '10)



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