Four and 1,076.
This story first appeared in the May 10, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That is the number of disasters that have hit Bangladesh’s textile and apparel industry in the last six months, and the total of the number of people who have died so far. The latest disaster, late Wednesday, was another factory fire in the Mirpur industrial district of Dhaka that killed eight people, while the number of deaths in the Savar building collapse on April 24 rose to 950.
The fire late Wednesday night has added “a dramatic sense of urgency” to IndustriALL Global Union’s negotiations with international apparel brands and retailers that source from Bangladesh to broker a binding deal on fire and building safety by the May 15 deadline, the umbrella grouping that represents apparel union affiliates worldwide said Thursday.
The accord foresees a coordinated system of inspections, training and financial commitments necessary to build a sustainable garment industry, and empowering workers to refuse dangerous work.
IndustriALL said, “The responsibility of the retail corporations is most clearly illustrated by the tiny percentage of their profits that go to labor costs and safety costs.”
It estimates that “an average of U.S. 2 cents of profit on a T-shirt would double the salary of the Bangladeshi that made it. An average of U.S. 10 cents of profit on each garment would pay for a transformation of safety standards across the entire industry in Bangladesh.”
Hundreds of thousands of supporters, activists and trade unionists have joined online petitions calling for change in Bangladesh towards creating a more sustainable garment industry, it said.
The fire late Wednesday at the factory of Tung Hai Sweater Ltd. did not kill any workers, who had left for the night. The blaze claimed the life of Mahbubur Rahman, the managing director of the factory, who was also a director of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, police officials told WWD. The others killed included Deputy Additional Inspector General of Police ZA Murshed and four people who the police said were friends of Rahman’s — Sohel Mostafa, Emdadur Rahman Badal, Nasim and Sahabuddin —and an office assistant and a guard.
The police official said that although investigations into the incident were ongoing, it appeared that the smoke from the fire filled the stairwell, leaving no room for escape, and that the terrace was locked and inaccessible for escape.
Tung Hai Sweater Ltd. is one of six divisions of the Tung Hai group, which was started in 1994. Customers for the group have included Primark and New Look of the U.K.; Inditex of Spain; Point Zero of Canada, and E. Leclerc and Agora of France, according to the company’s Facebook page.
According to press reports, Inditex said Tung Hai began manufacturing Inditex’s apparel in 2011, but it ended the relationship in June 2012 after the factory failed to adequately respond to the retailer’s demands to improve factory working conditions.
Media reports have also cited Primark as responding to the event by confirming that Tung Hai was manufacturing for the company and that it had been one of the factories checked with compliance audits.
Tung Hai — which manufactures hand-driven flat-knitted sweaters, cardigans, jumpers, ponchos, pullovers, twinsets, shrugs, scarves, hats and leggings, as well as T-shirts, polo shirts, knitted underwear and fleece shirts and pants — reportedly had several compliance achievements and certificates, officials noted.
“It appears that Tung Hai tragedy is an accident, though weakness in fire-accident preparedness may be the main reason for the deaths. It remains a question though why a senior police officer was there at such hour,” said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director, Transparency International Bangladesh.
“It is a big question, what exactly happened last night. The death of an owner of a factory in circumstances like these has never happened before,” said Fazlul Hoque, president of the Bangladesh Employers Federation. He said that the last few months have been an exceptionally bad time for the apparel industry, with the entire industry being looked askance at for the incidents that have occurred. “The owners should be more responsible. For one factory that causes damage, the whole country is suffering,” he observed.
“But we can’t blame any one owner or the government. We all have a role to play and take more responsibility, with the government enhancing its supervising capacity. Associations have a role to play, and we believe the commitment should come from owners themselves,” added Hoque. “The responsibility should be built with teamwork.”
Meanwhile, the rescue teams at Savar have been continuing the arduous excavation of bodies of workers trapped as the building they were working in collapsed. The eight-story building housed five garment factories and more than 3,000 workers.
Police officials said that in the single largest retrieval of bodies from the location, 120 were pulled from the debris Thursday.
They told WWD that rescue operations are likely to be completed in a couple of days as access to the first and second floors and deeper into the building had been reached using heavy equipment.
More than 300 of the bodies recovered have yet to be identified and claimed by their families, and the government has been taking immediate action by sending the bodies for DNA testing, officials said.
Addressing a press conference on Wednesday, BGMEA president Shaiful Islam said that safety inspections were under way and 65 buildings that had cracks in the walls had been identified and were being checked for safety. Three factories had been closed, he said, with another three being assessed for risk.
Fire and safety issues have become central to the government, and teams of inspectors have been visiting factories in Dhaka and Chittagong after 111 people were killed in a fire at Tazreen Fashion Ltd. in November, which was followed by another factory fire at Smart Fashion on Jan. 26 that claimed seven lives.
The situation in Dhaka was tense on Thursday, the second day of a hartal, or a shutdown, called by 18 opposition parties and led by the Bangladesh National Party. The strike is part of the opposition’s demand for a caretaker government for the elections that are scheduled for early next year. It is also to protest the deaths of more than 30 people who were killed among the slew of protests on Monday as Islamic hardliners laid siege to Dhaka in a bid for new antiblasphemy laws.
Police and riot control officers were stationed across the city, especially as an imminent verdict from a court in a war tribunal case was expected to cause some conflict. After the last verdict, in February, 21 people were killed in clashes across the city.
Another citywide shutdown is expected to be held on May 12.