In the panic that spread after shouts of “fire” sent workers racing out of Dhaka’s Apparel Today factory last week, 23-year-old Morzina Begum tumbled over a broken railing and bled to death. There was no fire -- it was a false alarm.
Garment workers in Bangladesh’s capital city have reason to be afraid. In the two weeks since a blaze at Tazreen Fashion Ltd. killed more than 100 people, at least eighteen smaller, non-fatal fires have broken out at garment factories around Dhaka. There have been at least 150 fires in the country this year.
“These incidents happen on a regular basis,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the labor rights group Clean Clothes Campaign in Amsterdam. “The Bangladesh garment industry is growing very rapidly, so the capacity of this city and its infrastructure to absorb that is at its limits.”
Surging wages and inflation in China, the largest apparel supplier, have prompted retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) to shift production to Bangladesh. In response, an $18 billion manufacturing industry has sprung up, marred by factories operated in buildings with poor electrical wiring, an insufficient number of exits and little fire-fighting equipment.
“Fire-fighting equipment is not adequate,” said Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of Exporters Association of Bangladesh, and managing director of textile company Envoy Group. “There are some factories that do not have easily accessible fire exits.”
At a fire at a Swan Group warehouse just two days after the fatal one at Tazreen, Kalpona Akter of the non-governmental organization Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity saw workers climb down a bamboo pole because they couldn’t exit through the stairs.
Swan’s factory is in compliance with workplace safety rules, said Feroz Kobir Prodhan, the company’s manager of administration, human resources and compliance. However, the building where the company’s warehouse is located is not, he said.
About 700 garment industry workers have died in the South Asian country since 2005 because of unsafe buildings, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.
Tazreen’s factory had no emergency exits, and many workers were burnt alive, as they got trapped in heavy smoke, Muhammad Mahboob, a director at the Fire Service and Civil Defence said after the fire. Tazreen made clothes for Wal-Mart, which has said it has fired a supplier which was not authorized to send orders to that facility.
There were no deaths in the 18 smaller fires since the Tazreen incidents, according to data compiled by Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence.
Bangladesh’s readymade garment exports surged almost four- fold in the last decade to $17.9 billion in 2011, or 78 percent of the nation’s total exports, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
The global garment industry would have to spend about $3 billion over five years to bring safety standards at Bangladesh apparel factories to Western standards, an analysis, provided to Bloomberg News by the Worker Rights Consortium, shows.
The European Union was the destination for about 60 percent of Bangladesh garment exports in the year ended June 2012, and another 28 percent went to the U.S. and Canada, according to data from the Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
“Brands are not saying they’re going to fix this before they expand production into the country--they’re just flooding the place with orders,” said Zeldenrust. “And manufacturers are accepting orders even when they don’t have the capacity to safely produce.”
“Ultimately the price per garment will go up because the manufacturer will have to make certain investments, and have certain costs,” Zeldenrust said. “At the same time, the cost of producing in Bangladesh is so cheap right now that the guess is the supply chain can actually absorb that.”
Wal-Mart has visited supplier factories to identify those deemed “high risk for fire safety hazards,” it said on its website. In 2011, the company stopped working with 49 factories in Bangladesh due to fire safety issues, it said.
Morzina Begum, the woman who died in the stampede at the Apparel Today factory, came from Mymensingh, a northern district, and used to earn 5,000 taka ($62) a month, Kamal Hossain, deputy general manager of the company’s HR and compliance, told Bloomberg by phone.
She fell over as a railing collapsed in the stampede and bled to death on the way to the hospital. “It was a sad, unfortunate incident,” Hossain said.
The company makes clothes for European and American buyers through sub-contracts, Hossain said.
The fires have convinced some of Bangladesh’s apparel workers, the jobs are not worth the risks. On a visit to Dhaka from Rajbari, an impoverished district in central Bangladesh, Sohrab Ali Sheikh, 48, said he was there to convince his two garment worker daughters to go back home.
“I don’t want to see my daughters die in a fire this way. If I can survive in my village, so can they,” Sheikh said, standing near the burnt-out Tazreen Fashion.
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