Deadly Factory Fire in Bangladesh Raises Questions of Worker Exploitation

tragic fire that killed more than 110 garments workers at Tazreen Fashions Ltd's nine story building in Nischintapur, Ashulia (near the Capital Dhaka), has raised many questions. Although the factory had a total of 335 fire extinguishers and 300 trained employees to fight fire in emergency situations, there was no visible efforts to douse the flames. The fire alarm went off at the right time but witnesses claimed that a number of doors were locked by the management preventing the workers from escaping.

Bangladesh has more than 4,000 ready-made clothing factories, which account for more than three-quarters of the countries export revenue. The world’s third-largest garments export industry employs more than 3 million workers, 90% of whom are women.

Over two decades these garment factories have contributed to changing the role of poor Bangladeshi women, whose primary mode of employment used to be as housemaids. Although the cost of labor is low Vikas Bajaj wrote in the New York Times about the positive impact this industry has had on families and off-springs of these newly empowered female workers.

As a developing country Bangladesh is under close scrutiny by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Corporate Social Responsibility Stakeholders regarding compliance. In the past five years both CSR experts and buyers report improved labor and social compliance standards. But there are still some areas of compliance that needs further improvement. The government has been stringent on eradicating child labor and increased fire safety measures but some entrepreneurs are more keen on profit rather than improving working conditions.

The factory destroyed by fire killing more than 100 workers. Image by Ibrahim. Copyright Demotix (25/11/2012)

As the images of burnt bodies emerged in social media and in TV broadcasts, many people were shocked and outraged. Thousands of angry garments workers protested today (Monday) demanding justice and better working conditions. Many netizens vented their rage in Facebook, blogs and other social media outlets asking many questions.

Rahnuma Ahmed writes:

Fifty-nine of the 111, which means more than half, were burnt beyond recognition. I heard a firefighter say on television, the bodies had been reduced to a skeleton.

She quotes Abir Abdullah, a photographer:

It was difficult for me to take the photograph, disfigured still beautiful, with a small ornament visible on her destroyed nose. I felt sad to take the photo [but] at the same time I felt grief and anger inside me [I still took it wanting] to show [everyone] the gruesome portrait to [make them] understand and make the world realize, how much importance they get when dead but nothing when alive.

Fire victim cries after seeing her relative who died in the garment factory fire. Image by Rehman Asad. Copyright Demotix (25/11/2012)

Seeker writes:

Dr Kamal Hossain, a prominent lawyer and politician commented that the lives lost in Ashulia Fire Tragedy is life lost to greed, profit. He termed these deaths as evidence of life’s worthlessness on the face of commodity and business aspirations. Shocking – yes, truly shocking that this is the case in 21 Century Bangladesh. But it’s a sad reality.

Also theories emerged as to whether this incident was a deliberate act of arson. A female worker was nabbed today in a nearby garments factory trying to arson it. She confessed to police [bn] that she was paid Taka 20,000 ($250) for this crime. The Prime Minister said at the parliament that the fire was pre-planned and interlinked with several violent incidents taking place in the country lately.

But Rahnuma Ahmed lashes at all these theories and explanations:

The problem, say BGMEA leaders, is the rush, the panic. The problem, they say, is mid-level management. The problem, they say, is the short circuit. [..]

“Mid-level management” is an easy cop-out, it seeks to prevent questions being raised as to precisely why people who are callous and indifferent, who treat workers like cattle, who cuss and swear at them, who lock exits, who tell the workers to get back to work when a fire breaks out, are hired in the first place. The answer is ugly. To rake in more and ever-more profits.

The stairs to the exit and the one to the storehouse were side by side, a flagrant violation of rules. As I watched BGMEA leaders blame the fire brigade for having issued safety licences, blame the factory inspector, I wondered how could they not just break down and cry? Is it because they are scared of being implicated? The “brave entrepreneur” story is a capitalist myth.

The government has declared compensations for the victims and the nation will observe a day of mourning. It also vowed to shut the factories which do not have sufficient fire escape installations. However Kuloda Roy [bn] blames the government and political parties of the country for ignoring the issue of improving the working conditions of the workers. He also blames civil societies:

মানবাধিকার সংস্থাগুলো, তোমরা কয়টা ঘটনার মনিটরিং বজায় রেখেছ? কয়টার জন্য দায়ী ব্যক্তিদের শাস্তি বিধানে মামলা করেছ? বা করার ব্যবস্থা নিয়েছ? এনজিওগণ শুধু সুদ-আসলের কিস্তি আদায় করা ছাড়া নাগরিকের জন্য কী করছ?

Human Rights Organizations, how many monitoring have you done? How many law suits have you filed against the accused? Or at least have tried? What have you NGOs done for the citizens except micro-loans business?

The civil society and activists have called a protest tomorrow at 3PM in the capital Dhaka.

Ashulia: We grieve

Shahidul Alam translates the poster above:

Protest called: Outside National Museum on 27th November 2012 at 3:00 pm

They locked me
They burnt me alive
I don’t want any more press statements
Why is the factory a prison
I do not accept having to work under lockup conditions

We demand a real investigation, justice and punishment of those responsible
We want the guarantee of natural deaths

Join the Protest Rally at 3 pm, Tuesday, 27 November 2012 outside the National Museum, Shahbagh, Dhaka

Writers-artists-teachers-cultural-political activists-citizens


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.