Dhaka, Bangladesh -- A fire
ripped through a clothing factory near the Bangladesh capital
of Dhaka, killing at least 117 people and sending workers
jumping out of the multistory building.
At least 200 people were injured as they rushed to get
out of the factory in Ashulia, police said.
Firefighters battled to contain the raging blaze that started
Saturday night on the first floor of the nine-story building
and spread to other floors, leaving hundreds of workers,
mostly women, trapped.
Overpass collapse kills 11 in Bangladesh; protests erupt
Officials said some 2,000 people were working in the factory
as the fire began, but it was unclear how many had been
The fire department said rescue operations have been very
difficult because the factory was packed with fabrics, yarn
and cotton, the fire department said. It said the death
toll might rise because firefighters could not enter some
floors of the building.
Scores of people were anxiously waiting outside the burning
factory in search of their relatives.
Bilkis Akhter, mother of teenage factory worker Munni Akhter,
said she had checked with the hospitals and police stations
but did not find her daughter, who had been working on the
Bangladesh's ready-made garments make up 80% of the country's
$24 billion in annual exports.
The country has about 4,500 garment factories that make
clothes for stores including Tesco, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney,
H&M, Marks & Spencer, Kohl's and Carrefour. The
sector earned $19 billion this year as of June.
The state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha recently
reported that some 6,000 people die every year in fires
Dhaka, Bangladesh - Strange as it may sound, it is the
owners of a garment factory where more than a 100 perished
in a deadly fire two days ago who are playing the victim
rather than the perpetrator.
"We are the sufferers. We are the victims," insisted
SMH Nodon, the director of marketing at Tuba Group, the
parent company of Tazreen Fashion, where a reported 600
people working overtime shifts were trapped by raging flames
on Saturday evening.
After some arm-twisting by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers
and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the trade association
representing factory owners, the management has agreed to
pay $1,230 as compensation for the families of each victim,
amounting to a total of about $152,000. In comparison, the
materials destroyed were worth about $12.3m; the construction
of the factory cost about the same amount.
“This is a 200 crore taka [$25mn] project. How it
got destroyed, we don’t know. If we did we would take
action,” said Nodon, whose company produces clothing
for Walmart, C&A, and Hong Kong-based mega-supplier
Li & Fung.
Tazreen’s owners have been criticised by the Bangladeshi
media for lamenting their losses without expressing regret
about the loss of lives.
Bangladesh’s Communications Minister Obaidul Quader
sparked widespread outrage for displaying a similar lack
of concern for victims and their families. In the immediate
aftermath of the tragedy, he proposed burying the burnt
corpses en masse before they had been identified. Since
then, the government has backtracked, agreeing to perform
DNA tests and wait for relatives to come to claim the bodies.
Herein lies the paradox of Bangladesh’s garments
industry, which for the past two decades has almost single-handedly
driven the country’s economic growth. Built on the
back of cheap, abundant, labour, its greatest asset is also
its most expendable one.
According to Clean Clothes Campaign - the largest alliance
of unions and NGOs in the industry - more than 600 garment
workers have died in factory fires since 2006.
Engine of economic growth
Bangladesh’s readymade garments sector has experienced
spectacular growth since the 1990s. With $17.9bn worth of
clothing shipped abroad in 2011, it now accounts for 80
per cent of the country’s exports.
The tiny, overpopulated South Asian nation of 150 million
people has become the second-largest exporter of clothing
in the world. BGMEA Vice President Faruque Hassan believes
the industry does not get enough credit for what it has
“It is difficult, really difficult. We have so little
land. If we could keep the factories at one or two floors,
then these incidents would be far rarer. But if I want to
open a factory in Thakurgaon [a less densely populated area
outside capital Dhaka], I won’t have gas, containers,
[or] electricity there. I’m not defending this [fire],
there is no forgiveness for this. But as the saying goes,
you can sit in the audience and criticise the players, but
it’s a different thing to play the game yourself,”
Thousands morn Bangladesh fire victims
“We are not competitive in any product, only in garments.
We don’t even produce the cotton and the petrochemicals
the garments industry need, we have no basic raw materials.
We have been trying to enter the South American market for
years, but we don’t even have an embassy in the entire
continent. Only last month, after years of pressure from
us, the government opened an embassy in Brazil. And with
all these drawbacks we have managed to become the second-largest
exporter in the world.”
The tragedy comes as BGMEA, together with several major
brands, are undertaking a large-scale fire safety overhaul
following several previous disasters. In December 2010,
a fire broke out in a garment factory owned by Hamim Group,
killing 29. Earlier in March that year, another fire at
Garib & Garib Sweater Factory killed 21.
Despite frequent tragedies like the Tazreen blaze and almost
non-stop labour unrest, Bangladesh is tipped by the World
Bank and the McKinsey consulting group to overtake China
as the world’s largest exporter of garments in the
“The one-child policy is now impacting the Chinese
economy,” observes Nur Mohammed Amin Rasel, a senior
deputy director at BGMEA. “That one child will not
want to waste his life in garments.”
In Bangladesh, the industry boasts a workforce of 3.6 million
– larger than the entire workforce of Cambodia. In
the eyes of global brands such as H&M and Nike, the
low wages and the capacity of its labour force give Bangladesh
The minimum wage was raised in 2010 to about $40 a month,
or 21 cents per hour, following worker riots, falling well
short of their demands for $65 a month. In comparison the
minimum wage in China is 0.93c/hr, Vietnam’s is 0.52c/hr,
and India’s is 0.68c/hr.
'This trade is not fair'
Many point out the hypocrisy of international brands, who
respond to factory fires by issuing a long list of Corporate
Social Responsibility (CSR) requirements to protect their
image, while at the same time squeezing both local factory
owners and workers by demanding lower prices.
“Most of this, improving conditions and wages, depends
on the buyers [people working for international brands],”
said Amirul Amin, a labour leader who heads the National
Garments Worker Federation. “They give us very low
prices, then sell the goods for 2 to 3 times as much. They
will buy a dozen t-shirts from us for $15, then will sell
each [individual] t-shirt back home for $7.”
“The trade they are doing, this trade is not fair.
If we are to improve working conditions and wages, buyers
need to take responsibility, which they are not taking.”
Ravid Chowdhury, a former Dhaka-based fellow with the International
Growth Centre who has studied the garment industry, said:
“There’s intense competition, and wherever owners
can cut costs they do, and we see that with the hiring of
apprentices and helpers who are paid even less than the
minimum wage because they're not full-time employees.”
Following the 2010 Hamim Group fire, there were reports
that the exits were locked to prevent theft, leaving workers
imprisoned in the inferno. Similar reports of inadequate
exits have surfaced following the Tazreen fire, although
Hassan rejects these accusations.
Labour leaders, who have complained about poor safety standards,
say they are routinely harassed and sometimes even tortured.
One labour organiser, Aminul Islam, was brutally murdered
in April, with Bangladesh’s security forces allegedly
involved in the crime.
'Life is too hard'
Lovely Deh suffered terrible burns in a factory fire when
she was just eleven years old [Credit: Moin Ahsan]
To labour leaders and campaigners, Lovely Deh, 17, is seen
as a heartbreaking symbol of the garment industry’s
problems. Six years ago, she entered a garment factory as
an 11-year-old recruit. “They told me that if anybody
asks, then to say that I’m 18,” she said.
Two weeks later, a fire broke out, leaving her disabled,
and covered in scars.
“We all noticed that there was some smoke coming,
the air started smelling weird,” she recalls. “We
all panicked, screaming and shouting, and ran down the stairs.
I fell and became unconscious, and later came to in the
One of the accomplishments of the garment industry has
been its success in eradicating once-common child labour.
But factory fires continue unabated, and while the latest
victims can expect some compensation, Lovely has not received
a penny from the government or the owner of the factory
she had worked at.
“My hands hurt too much for me to do any work,”
Lovely lives with her elder brother, who she says is the
only one willing to take on the burden of caring for her
– her parents no longer are. Many are scared by the
sight of her – she says when children see her on the
streets they run away in fear.
Her brother has to take out loans every month to pay for
her medical care, which amounts to an unaffordable $20 each
month. She worries that when it is finally time for her
brother to get married, she will have lost her last haven.
“Of course my brother loves me, but when he gets
married, then what happens to me? What will happen to me
then? My brother is also worried about his future, he wonders
how he will ever get married with someone like me around,”
“Don’t pray for me, if you do pray, pray that
I die soon. What, have I said something wrong? This life
is too hard. “