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Another tragedy hit the Bangladesh apparel industry Tuesday when a blaze at the Aswad Composite Mills on the outskirts of Dhaka killed nine people and injured more than 46.
This is the fourth major fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh, which has been under intense pressure from workers’ rights groups and Western retailers to improve safety standards in its textile and apparel sector.
Police officials said that the fire started on the ground floor at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, when about 170 evening-shift workers were on duty, far less than the total workforce of 3,000 in the daytime.
Among the dead was the factory’s general manager Rashed Uzzaman Mandal. Others included workers from the ground floor and a firefighter. The bodies were charred beyond recognition by the fire, which workers told WWD was caused by a faulty machine. However, police officials said that they were still investigating, adding that the fire spread so quickly that it took more than seven hours to bring under control.
The factory covers 250,000 square feet. Aswad Composite Mills has been linked to the George brand owned by the Asda unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; Loblaws of Canada, and Hudson’s Bay Co., according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Factory managers told WWD that other retailers that have sourced from the company include H&M and Primark. However, they were not clear about the date of the orders or the shipments, which may not have been under immediate production.
“Our first thought goes out to the individuals who were injured in this fire, and to those who lost their lives. Loblaw Companies is confident we have not placed any product orders from the Aswad Composite Mills Ltd. Co., where the fire took place. And we have a ‘no tolerance’ policy with all our vendors when it comes to unauthorized outsourcing. We have seen documents that suggest there may have been such unauthorized production and we are investigating,” the Canadian retailer said.
Loblaw’s subsidiary Joe Fresh sourced from one of the other factories where tragedy struck, the Rana Plaza site where the collapse of an apparel factory killed 1,129 people.
Even as government agencies and non-governmental organizations in Dhaka have stepped up inspections and the protocol to ensure safety of workers in the $21 billion garment industry in Bangladesh, the fire in Gazipur has raised a fresh round of concerns and protest.
Nafiz Shikdar, managing director of the company, reacted quickly, revealing compensation of 500,000 takas, or $6,500 at current exchange, to each family of the dead.
Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, said on Wednesday evening that the organization would compensate the families of dead workers with 200,000 takas, or $2,600, each and that costs for medical care of the injured would be borne by Aswad Composite Mills.
The government has responded by setting up a seven-member panel to probe the fire headed by Shahnewaz Dilruba Khan, assistant deputy commissioner general of Gazipur. The group is expected to submit its report within a week.
The situation facing the industry has been grim since the collapse of the nine-story Rana Plaza in Savar, another suburb of Dhaka on April 24, with fire officials searching through the rubble for weeks to retrieve the bodies of the dead.
Deadly fires have also caused worker deaths and injuries over the last year, including Tazreen Fashions Ltd. on Nov. 21 in which 112 workers lost their lives.
Global outrage over the incidents has led to action plans and support for the garment industry and despite threats to pull out of the country by international retailers, garment exports have gone up by 15 percent — from $19.1 billion to $21.51 billion in the financial year 2012-13.
Exports in September rose by 36.26 percent over the same month last year.
“This is an indication that the industry is still able to sustain itself,” Mohammed Hassan, a factory owner, told WWD.
The activity both domestically and at international levels has been intense over the last five months, after the collapse of Rana Plaza. More than 90 brands joined the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which aims to tackle the root causes of factory collapses and fires. More than 20 North American Retailers and brands formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and also created a binding agreement aimed at improving factories in Bangladesh.
As international retailers look for ways to contribute to and improve worker safety, many factory owners claim that they have changed their safety standards to check exit routes for fire as well as electrical points that cause fires to erupt. Yet, disasters continue to happen.
“This is a truly shocking tragedy. It underlines the need for urgent action to make the safety improvements that are so badly needed in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment factories. Through the Bangladesh Accord, we will be doing our utmost to make progress as quickly as possible, so that we can avoid tragedies like this in the future,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union.
UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings said, “The Bangladesh Accord, by bringing together industry and trade unions, will help to ensure that long-overdue safety improvements are made. We know the size of the task ahead, sadly emphasized by the Gazipur fire. We must deliver collectively for the sake of the Bangladeshi garment workers and their families.”
“This latest tragedy highlights how much still needs to be done to make the Bangladesh garment industry safe,” said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign. “The signing of the accord was a huge step forward, but this tragedy underlines the need for inspections and renovations to get underway as a matter of urgency. We urge all those connected to the factory to work together to provide compensation, lost wages and medical treatment to those families and individuals affected by this fire.”
The Clean Clothes Campaign said that more brands were expected to be found sourcing at the factory and the organization “urged all those with production at Aswad to acknowledge responsibility and to take immediate steps to ensure compensation and medical treatment is provided to those who need it.”
The garment industry in Bangladesh has been under additional turmoil over the last four weeks with workers demanding higher salaries. Protests were backed by violence and calls by union leaders to change the minimum wage from the existing $38 per month to $104 per month.
An acceptance by the BGMEA of the need for change has brought a temporary lull in the protests. The group’s president commented that employers were “ready to implement a rational wage for the workers, to be announced by the government, and upgrade safety standards with the cooperation of international buyers.”