Another fire at an apparel factory in Bangladesh is shining a spotlight on how much work remains to be done to improve safety conditions in the nation’s fashion industry.
At issue is how quickly Western brands and organizations are helping to fund safety improvements at Bangladesh factories, and how rapidly the repairs are being done. The factory where the fire took place, Matrix Sweater Ltd. in Gazipur, Bangladesh, had been inspected by both the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and had been found to need improvements.
The factory makes garments for member companies of both organizations, including Accord members Hennes & Mauritz and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.
The fire started around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, just before workers came in for the morning shift. The factory has a workforce of 6,000.
“There were no workers in the building and there were no casualties other than those of fire workers who were affected by the strong smoke from the acrylic sweaters,” said Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
Rahman said investigations into the cause of the fire were needed before commenting on causes or solutions, but said with more than 4,000 factories, challenges remain. “The point is to maximize the safety, which is what we are doing very actively, and continue to work on with urgency,” he said.
After the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in April 2013, in which 1,133 workers lost their lives, a plan to inspect all the garment factories was put in place. The Alliance and the Accord have worked actively over the last two years to inspect, educate and upgrade the factories.
The first inspection of Matrix Sweater was conducted in 2014 by the Alliance, with recommendations made for several essential safety improvements.
“In June 2015, a remediation verification visit indicated that Matrix had completed 25 percent of its required repairs, with an additional 62 percent of repairs in progress,” the Alliance said Wednesday. “Yet to be completed was the installation of fire doors, automatic sprinklers and fire detection systems, which allowed the fire to spread.”
Inspecting the factory after the fire, the Accord found the factory “behind schedule on a number of other life-safety items such as installation of sprinklers and automatic fire alarm system, removal of all lockable gates, and electrical items,” according to global union IndustriALL, one of the signatories of the Accord.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said, “Incredibly, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety reports on its Web site that the process of safety renovation at Matrix Sweaters is ‘on track,’ which the Alliance defines as ‘progressing adequately.’ It is astonishing that the Alliance has Matrix Sweaters rated as ‘on track’ with safety renovations. This factory has missed dozens of deadlines to eliminate fire hazards and make the structure safe, with 72 different hazards still uncorrected almost two years after inspection. Just how dangerous does a factory have to be to earn criticism from the Alliance?”
Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the Alliance, responded on Wednesday, pointing out that “The Clean Clothes Campaign can criticize because they have no actual involvement in garment factory safety reform.”
“The Alliance and our member companies know that improving safety in Bangladesh factories is a daunting task, because we do it every day — and our work resulted in 2015 being the safest year in Bangladesh garment factories in recent history, with no deaths and few fire incidents and injuries,” Tauscher said. “We know that getting factory owners to bring their factories into compliance with international safety standards takes time. That’s why we launched a five-year initiative — now in its third year — to complete this work. We are disappointed that the Clean Clothes Campaign has once again chosen to ignore progress on behalf of workers, while using fires as an opportunity to criticize and undermine that progress.”
The Alliance and its 27-member companies have formally severed ties with 26 factories that have failed to comply with safety standards and more than 1.1 million workers have been trained for fire safety.
A senior government official in Bangladesh,who requested anonymity, said the level of progress that has been made in the last two-and-a-half years shouldn’t be ignored, but it was unrealistic to expect a full transformation yet.
It is clear on all fronts that the fire at Matrix Sweater has underscored the urgency for acceleration of the progress.
“While there were no casualties and only minor injuries in the fire, this incident underscores the importance of our ongoing work to remediate factories to meet international safety standards and to push factories that are moving slowly to accelerate their remediation progress,” the Alliance said.
The group said there had been a dramatic decline in serious fire incidents since the launch of international safety initiatives, especially in terms of a reduction in fire risk, injury and death, yet there remain hazards that still needed to be addressed under the remediation program.
Many of these are further complicated by infrastructure issues in Bangladesh, such as a lack of access to water supply — a problem faced by the team of fire officials on Tuesday in dousing the flames that started on the seventh floor of the building. Other problems include overcrowding of buildings and a lack of physical space outside the buildings to provide adequate fire escape.
The unions want reforms to come more quickly.
“The inspection work of the Accord has been completed for some time and, as this fire makes clear, the time for full remediation is long overdue,” said Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary, UNI Global Union.
Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union and one of the architects of the Accord , said the fire highlighted the race against time to make Bangladesh’s garment factories safe.
“It has been nearly three years since the Rana Plaza collapse and factories are still unsafe — the factory owners and brands are not doing enough to undertake the corrective action needed,” Raina said.