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Bangladesh Factory Fire Stirs Action Calls

Working conditions in Asian apparel factories are in the news again after a deadly fire killed more than 115 people.

A Bangladeshi soldier walks through rows of burnt sewing machines after a fire at the nine-story Tazreen Fashions factory.

Working conditions in Asian apparel factories are again stirring controversy after a deadly fire at a plant in Ashulia, Bangladesh, killed more than 115 people.

The International Labor Rights Forum, which for several years has been tracking and responding to factory fires in Bangladesh’s garment industry, issued a statement Sunday calling the fire at the Tazreen Fashions plant on Saturday night the deadliest factory fire in the history of the apparel industry in Bangladesh. It is the second tragedy to hit the region’s apparel industry in the last three months. In September, a fire at an apparel plant in Karachi, Pakistan, killed more than 300 people.

“We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh’s low wages to make a profit,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of ILRF. “Their voluntary and confidential monitoring programs have failed. Now it is time to come together and make a contractual commitment to workers and to involve workers and their organizations in the solution.”

The group claims there have been 700 deaths from factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005.

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The ILRF claimed that researchers found evidence that Tazreen produced Wal-Mart’s Faded Glory brand, in addition to finding logos, clothing and documents from Ace, C&A, Dickies, Fashion Basics, Sean Combs Co.’s Enyce brand, Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s brands (P.G. Field and Country Rose), Hippo, Infinity Woman, Karl Rieker, GMBH & Co., Kebo Raw, KiK, Piaza Italia, Soffe and True Desire.

As the fire began, about 2,000 workers, mostly women, were trapped on the first floor of the factory, which was crammed with fabrics, yarn and cotton that quickly accelerated the raging blaze. Firefighters fought to contain the inferno as workers jumped from the multistory building to their deaths. The death toll could rise because officials said firefighters could not access some floors of the building. More than 200 people were said to have been injured.

Bangladesh has around 4,500 garment factories that make men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, as well as sleepwear, underwear, daywear and robes, for retailers including Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Tesco, J.C. Penney, H&M, and Marks & Spencer. The apparel sector generated $19 billion in 2012 as of June.

Wal-Mart issued a statement: “Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of this tragedy. While we are trying to determine if the factory has a current relationship with Wal-Mart or one of our suppliers, fire safety is a critically important area of Wal-Mart’s factory audit program and we have been working across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh. As part of this effort, we partnered with several independent organizations to develop and roll out fire safety training tools for factory management and workers. Continued engagement is critical to ensure that reliable, proactive measures are in place to reduce the chance of factory fires. ”

H&M, which considers Bangladesh an “important buying market,” said on Sunday that it does not work with the Tazreen Fashions garment factory. The Swedish retailer has been actively working to improve factory conditions in the region. The retailer published a Bangladesh Development Plan, which is on its corporate Web site. “H&M wants to contribute to lasting improvements for people working in the clothing industry in Bangladesh,” the plan said. “Now efforts are being stepped up, with the goal of supporting social development in the long term.” Among the issues H&M has broached are fire safety, skills development and health care.

The retailer said: “Today H&M’s thoughts go to the ones affected by the devastating fire yesterday at a garment factory in Bangladesh. The tragic accident happened at a factory that does not produce for H&M.

“H&M plays an active role in improving fire safety in Bangladeshi garment factories. We are deeply sorry about the disastrous incident at Tazreen Fashions.”

The state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha recently reported that some 6,000 people die every year in fires in Bangladesh. In December 2010, another factory in Ashulia, an apparel industry cluster near the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, burned to the ground, claiming the lives of at least 31 apparel workers and seriously injuring 200.

In the wake of the 2010 blaze, local trade unionists were critical of the plant’s lack of proper maintenance of safety and emergency exits. Firemen rushed to the site but could not enter the fifth floor of the building due to excessive heat, forcing the authorities to summon army personnel who tried to rescue the trapped workers, mostly females, with their helicopters. Many were seen jumping from the building to escape the fire.

At the time, Shahara Khatun, Bangladesh’s minister for home affairs, said an electrical short circuit may have been the culprit. Fires in Bangladesh garment factories are common due to substandard electrical wiring, annually killing scores of workers who toil 12 to 14 hours a day in poor working conditions for less than $50 a month.