How many more workers will have to pay with their lives to absorb the terrible cost of apparel companies’ low-road, bottom-price business model?Close to 10 p.m. on Thursday, February 26, 2010, twenty-one workers died when the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh, caught fire for the second time in six months. Local news media reported thick black smoke caused by burning acrylic yarn spreading throughout the building. Lasting nearly two hours, the fire consumed the oxygen in the air, suffocating the workers. The smoke could not get out because the building was poorly ventilated. Workers could not escape because exits were locked. Fire fighters had to cut the window grills to get in, hampering rescue efforts. The factory’s own fire-fighting equipment, they report, was "virtually useless."
Swedish news media quoted a surviving worker, Abdul Momin, who lost an aunt in the fire:
Everyone who worked on the top floor died, because the exits were locked. All of them were women. They were trapped and they suffocated.
Garib & Garib makes sweaters for major apparel brands and retailers, including Swedish H&M, Canadian Mark’s Work Wearhouse, and Italian Terranova. These retailers assure consumers their brands are safe-to-buy, pointing to codes of conduct for factory suppliers, factory auditing, and ethical sourcing programs.
H&M boasts: “Since 2005 H&M has been an accredited company in the Fair Labor Association (FLA). … Our participation in the FLA is a way of demonstrating to our stakeholders how well our follow-up work in the factories is working. … We also use the results from the FLA’s audits as a benchmark in order to ensure the quality of our internal monitoring program.”
Yet, one may wonder if fires have now become part of apparel companies’ business equation for Bangladesh. In the aftermath of Thursday’s fire, The Daily Star published this (incomplete) list of recent garment factory fires in Bangladesh:
- 62 killed at KTS Garments, Chittagong 2006
- 32 killed at Saraka Garments, Dhaka 1990
- 24 killed at Shanghai Apparels, Dhaka 1997
- 23 killed at Macro Sweater, Dhaka 2000
- 23 killed at Chowdhury Knitwear, Narsingdi 2004
- 23 killed at Shan Knitting, Narayanganj 2005
- 22 killed at Lusaka Garments, Dhaka 1996
- 20 killed at Jahanara Fashion, Narayanganj 1997
- 12 killed at Globe Knitting, Dhaka 2000
The Daily Star reminds its readers that just six months ago a fire broke out at the very same factory, Garib & Garib, killing a fire fighter. “Locals and firefighters said the owners do not seem to have learned much from the fire in the same building six months back,” the paper reports. Nor have the apparel brands. All their factory audits seemingly could not prevent another tragedy.
Factory fires in Bangladesh are the predictable outcome of the lethal “low-price-at-any-cost” business model that ignites a race to the bottom in which Bangladesh is one of the victors, claiming “ground zero” in working conditions. More than 4,000 factories and two millions workers in Bangladesh now toil at ground zero at a terrible cost to human lives.In the aftermath of the fire, the apparel brands and others will investigate and discussion will focus on faulty equipment, lack of training and fire-drills, and perhaps there will be concerns raised about locked exits and poor ventilation. But there are bigger questions that must not be missed:
- Why do factory audits fail to prevent fires? Why are the fires so common?
- Why do we allow workers in Bangladesh to subsidize the cost of clothing we buy? How much do they pay—in poor working and living conditions—for every item of cheap clothing we buy?
- Why does the garment sector in Bangladesh continue to grow despite the fires and despite the abusive working conditions that nobody—not even the brands themselves—deny?
- Why were workers still in the factory at 10 p.m.? Why were they locked in?