Deadly factory fire renews outcry in Bangladesh

A deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh raised new cries for improvements to the country’s industrial safety conditions Thursday, two weeks after a massive building collapse killed at least 950 people.

A fire swept through a factory in Dhaka, the capital, killing eight people, including its managing director and a top police official. Initial police reports suggested that the fire in the 11-story building late Wednesday was caused by a short circuit on the second floor that spread to the third and fourth floors, where the factory was located.

Mahbubur Rahman, managing director of the Tung Hai Sweater factory, was reportedly meeting with friends about 11 p.m. when the blaze erupted, trapping them. The factory was closed at the time. Doctors and local fire officials said most of the victims apparently suffocated on a staircase.

Photographs showed thick black smoke bellowing out of the building’s second floor as firefighters worked to douse the fire, which burned for about three hours.

The fire followed the collapse April 24 of Rana Plaza, a massive building that housed five garment factories and a shopping complex outside Dhaka. The hundreds killed were mostly apparel workers.

In recent days, officials have promised to enact safety reforms, although some critics have challenged the government’s record of following through on its pledges.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China. In recent months, a string of disasters has led to calls for reform as Western apparel companies battle charges that their production is built on exploitation.

Past reform campaigns and costly fire and safety regulations have been largely watered down or ignored, critics say.

“We want to be hopeful that we’ll see implementation and real change,” said Tessel Pauli, an activist with the Netherlands-based group Clean Clothes Campaign. “But it’s clear, given the unsafe record in the sector, I wonder if it will be enough really to affect the problem.”

The Bangladesh garment industry accounts for a whopping 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion in annual exports and employs 4 million people, and dozens of lawmakers are closely linked to factory owners. And while many Western apparel companies adopt codes of conduct, they are keen to drive production costs down and maximize profit in an industry of constantly changing subcontractors. Feeding all this are Western consumers looking for cheap deals.

Garment factory fires have been a recurrent problem in Bangladesh, killing about 700 people since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Last year, at least 110 people were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, with another eight killed in January at another factory.

In a bid to burnish its reputation, allay safety fears and prevent foreign companies from buying elsewhere, Bangladesh on Wednesday said it was temporarily shuttering 16 factories in the capital and two in the southeastern port city of Chittagong. The government also agreed, in cooperation with the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, to add 200 building inspectors within six months, retrain workers, repair problematic factories and introduce a bill in parliament allowing collective bargaining.

A related, if less publicized, concern is political instability. Garment production in Bangladesh was disrupted Thursday by a general strike, one of dozens this year, amid a deep social and political division between secularists and Islamist conservatives.