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Issue #1447      17 March 2010

Garib fire survivors call for justice and a safe industry

Following a horrific factory fire that killed 21 employees of a garment factory in Bangladesh, the factory workers are demanding swift reforms, a criminal investigation and compensation for the victims. Support these workers’ demands by writing to the government of Bangladesh and international fashion brands sourcing from this factory.

On February 25, 2010, 21 workers died when the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh, caught fire for the second time in six months.

The death toll in the Bangladeshi garment industry since 2000 now stands at 230. Given widespread knowledge of the safety hazards in the garment factories in Dhaka, failure to act amounts to criminal negligence.

What happened?

A government-authorised probe into the cause of the fire said the fire was started by an electric short-circuit on the second floor of the factory. It quickly spread to the other floors filled with inflammable materials such as wool threads and other goods. Lasting nearly two hours, the fire created a thick black smoke and consumed the oxygen in the air, suffocating the workers.

The smoke could not escape because of poor ventilation and the presence of unauthorised sheet metal structures that were being used for storage of highly inflammable materials on the roof of the building. Workers could not escape because exits were locked and materials blocked the stairways. The factory’s fire-fighting equipment was “virtually useless”, according to the Dhaka Fire Service and Civil Defence, and reportedly none of the security guards on duty knew how to operate fire extinguishers and hydrants.

On March 7, families of the deceased workers received 200,000 Taka (approximately 2,085 Euro) in compensation. The injured workers have been admitted to several hospitals in the Dhaka area. There is no news yet about whether these first steps will be followed by further compensation measures, as 200,000 Taka is not sufficient.

Further compensation is needed in the longer term for both the seriously injured workers and the families of the deceased workers. The factory will remain closed for the month of March. As of March 10, the Garib workers have received full payment of wages for the month of February (including the days after the fire broke out), but are awaiting further payment of wages for the remaining period the factory stays closed.

Failing audits

The Clean Clothes Campaign has contacted European and US garment companies that reportedly sourced from Garib & Garib Sweater Ltd. The Swedish H&M responded to the CCC that they are working together with another current buyer, the Italian company Teddy who owns the brand Terranova, on compensation of the injured workers and the families of the deceased. We welcome the first steps taken by these companies to respond to the needs of the workers and their families, and urge all buyers to ensure a longer term approach is taken regarding financial compensation which involves unions and workers’ organisations.

The fact that H&M denies that structural safety problems existed at Garib & Garib is worrisome, however. They say that their October 2009 audit found there were clearly marked escape routes and emergency exits, as well as fire extinguishers.

The inadequacy of the audit system could not be more clearly demonstrated. It has been the criticism from the labour movement for the last decade that the audit system fails to detect lack of compliance on a day-to-day basis. Just ticking off the existence of escape routes does not help if stairways are blocked with materials. Likewise the availability of fire extinguishers is not enough when nobody is trained to use them. Involving workers in monitoring health and safety conditions therefore remains a fundamental prerequisite to ensure that incidents like this are prevented in the future.

In addition, given the repeated lethal incidents in the garment industry in Bangladesh, it is no longer defensible that audit reports detecting shortcomings in safety standards are kept private. The industry should become more transparent and accountable to the workers concerned, and disclose audit reports to workers’ unions, the government and other stakeholders involved.

Responsibility

Sadly, this fire was not only preventable, it was predictable, and therefore in no way can we call it an accident. Since 2000 the Clean Clothes Campaign and its Bangladeshi partner organisations have been calling for a review of all Bangladeshi garment factories following similar fatal accidents, all sharing the same hallmarks – including blocking of stairways with goods and materials, locking of factory gates, bad ventilation, missing or inappropriate fire extinguishing equipment and lack of personnel trained in emergency operations.

However, to date neither the government, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) or the international buyers have taken sufficient steps to address the structural and systemic problems in the garment industry.

We therefore fully support the demands from Bangladeshi unions and workers’ organisations to the Garib & Garib owner, the government, the BGMEA and the international buyers to:

  • ensure the immediate payment of at minimum 500,000 Taka for the families of the deceased workers;
  • ensure that proper medical treatment and necessary compensation for the injured workers is provided (in accordance with independent medical advice);
  • take effective measures for compensation of the victims in the longer term, involving government, the owner, buyers, the BGMEA, trade union representatives and civil society representatives at the decision-making level;.
  • publicly disclose all relevant investigation reports, including audit reports by international buyers and their agents, about the working conditions at Garib & Garib Sweater Ltd.;
  • ensure a credible investigation is conducted, involving workers’ and human rights organisations, into the circumstances which allowed this tragedy to take place, and fully disclose the findings;
  • implement all existing health and safety and emergency regulations, and ensure sufficient resources are made available for labour inspection and handling of (anonymous) workers’ and union complaints. Workers should have access to all information about where to file complaints and be informed about their follow-up; and
  • recognise the right of workers to organise in unions of their choice, and the right of unions to have access to workers and to perform all activities needed to truly represent their members.

In addition we call upon the government in particular to:

  • ensure a credible criminal investigation is conducted into the Garib & Garib fire and the apparent neglect of health and safety and emergency regulations, and ensure a swift arrest and judicial process for anyone whose actions or negligence contributed for this disaster; and
  • review the existing health and safety and emergency regulations, based on an impartial and transparent investigation into health and safety accidents of the last years.

In addition we call upon the fashion companies ordering at Garib & Garib to:

  • publicly support these demands to the government, and ensure their implementation;
  • directly engage with the unions to ensure that follow up actions and compensation measures are effective.

SweatFree Communities and International Labour Rights Forum.   

Next article – Culture & Life – Poverty and the responsibility of government

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