In a fateful twist to an act of charity, more than 25 people were killed Friday as a donation of clothes turned into a stampede in the town of Mymensingh, Bangladesh, some 70 miles north of Dhaka. More than 50 others were injured.
The incident occurred at the Nurani Jarda factory, a chewing tobacco plant where the owner, Shamim Talukder, also lives. Initially the narrow entrance gate was opened at 5 a.m. allowing a trickle of people to enter. Opening the main gate caused a rush of people, crushing many of them.
“More than 1,500 people gathered outside,” a police official said, “and once the pushing and pulling started, there was mayhem.”
Exit gates at Bangladesh factories have been a focus since the fire at Tazreen Fashion Ltd. in Dhaka in November 2012, in which 111 garment workers were killed. The situation was made worse because the exit gate was locked. Following the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013, there has been concern that exit gates be wide enough and that they not be locked.
On Friday, eyewitnesses alleged that the stampede had worsened when factory officials shouted and attacked workers. But the management has denied those allegations, saying they were only trying to control the situation.
The clothes were being distributed for “zakat,” which is traditionally a form of charity before the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Both politicians and police acted quickly after the incident.
Moinul Haque, superintendent of police in Mymensingh, said Saturday that more than eight people have been arrested. The government has also appointed a three-member committee to probe the incident. The committee has been mandated to submit a report within five days.
The accused include Talukder; his son; the factory manager, and a few employees.
Police officials also said that from now on it will be necessary to receive special permission to distribute clothes for zakat.
The situation is being carefully monitored in Dhaka, where concern has been mounting about labor unrest before the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday, when festive bonuses are due. Factory owners across Bangladesh have been cautioned to settle dues prior to Tuesday, before workers head home for Eid-ul-Fitr. This was compounded by demonstrations by workers last week in Dhaka city.
Trade union leaders said that more than 11,000 workers of 16 factories have lost their jobs in the last year — factory inspections by the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two groups that constitute more than 225 global brands and retailers, have resulted in the closure of some substandard factories.