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Protests Increase Over Bangladesh Working Conditions

Industry workers protested in front of the Press Club, demanding immediate punishment for the owner of the Palmal Group.

It was once again a day of condolences and protests in Dhaka.

This story first appeared in the October 11, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

After a fire Wednesday in a factory in the suburb of Gazipur killed at least nine people, Nafis Sikdar, managing director of Palmal Group where the factory fire took place, and Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, held a condolence meeting for the dead at the BGMEA’s offices.

“It was a very solemn moment,” said a former BGMEA official, who requested anonymity. “We have had too many of these in the past months and each time it appears that the garment industry will be spared any further incidents of this nature.”

Meanwhile, industry workers protested in front of the Press Club, demanding immediate punishment for the owner of the group. Leaders who had earlier planned to protest outside the factory site in Gazipur said they had been harassed by security guards hired by company management, but that did not deter them from expressing their anger at another location.

Separate protests by workers in Ashulia, another suburb of Dhaka where garment factories are located, continued. These protests were over wage issues and more than 30 workers were injured, a police official told WWD.

Speaking to the press, Sikdar of Palmal continued to stress the fire was an accident and not sabotage. He said that while the exact cause of the fire was under investigation, it appeared the blaze started in a heating machine. However, he described the quick spread of the fire as “mysterious” and said his company was committed to paying compensation to the victims. He said that the factory had followed safety regulations. “It is a matter of concern how a highly compliant factory could catch fire and how the fire spread so quickly,” he said.

Paying respects to the injured and the dead was Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who on Thursday inaugurated the Bangladesh Textile Exposition at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel.

Maintaining her previous claim that “vested interests” were trying to foil and disrupt the progress of the garment sector, Hasina told her audience that the government, workers and owners of industries should remain united to defeat such interests. She also spoke about the need to enhance productivity and the need to use modern technology to improve the situation for the garment industry.

The prime minister said the recent tragedies in the sector were “one of the big challenges for all industries across the world.”

The three-day Batexpo 2013, organized by the BGMEA, is a showcase for the garment industry and is targeted at global buyers. Islam of the BGMEA said the show was expected to outperform the orders of $61.7 million at last year’s exhibition.

The event, which has 80 stands, is an official meeting ground for global players in the industry to find their business partners in the garment industry in Bangladesh.

But the country is coming under increasing pressure from Western governments and retailers to improve working conditions in the textile and apparel industry. The consortium of 90 European manufacturers and retailers that have formed the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety said the fire again showed the need for radical improvements in the working conditions and safety of apparel workers in Bangladesh. “We send our deepest condolences to the bereaved families. Coming so soon after the building collapse in April, this is a cruel blow to the community dependent on garment workers in Bangladesh,” the group noted.

A similar incident on May 11 left eight dead at a factory in the Mirpur area, which was first described as possible sabotage. Before that was the death of 1,129 workers with the collapse of the nine-floor building Rana Plaza in Savar and a fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. last November, where 112 people died in a fire.