The Bangladeshi garment factory that was the site of a horrific weekend fire that left at least 110 people dead was a panicked charnel of blocked stairwells and locked emergency exits, The Globe and Mail has learned.
The Tuba Group, that owned the factory in Tazreen, has been repeatedly cited by safety auditors for sealed exits, blocked stairwells, lack of fire-fighting equipment or fire alarms, failure to post exit signs or light stairwells, poor wiring and lack of evacuation plans.
Before the fire, the company was adding extra floors to the factory, which was on the outskirts of Dhaka.
What is more, the factory had added several storeys to the building without approval, Habibul Islam, the government’s chief inspector of factories, told AFP.
“We gave them permission to build a three-storey factory, but they expanded the building without any approval from us,” he said. It is unclear how many storeys there were. Reports say there were six, eight or nine.
The fire took more than 17 hours to be extinguished.
This incident, along with another garment factory fire on Monday, has raised many uncomfortable questions about the poor working conditions and disregard for worker safety in the world’s second-largest garment-exporting country, which creates clothing for The Gap, H&M and Wal-Mart.
Forensic workers began the task Monday afternoon of trying to obtain DNA samples from bodies burned beyond recognition, so as to try to identify them. Sheik Hasina Rahman declared a national day of mourning on Tuesday. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association announced it would pay 100,000 thaka, or $1,220, to the families of each of the dead.
In a letter that was posted previously on the company’s website – now no longer accessible – Delowar Hossain, who identifies himself as the founder and managing director, said he was a Canadian citizen.
Montu Ghose, a lawyer with the Garment Workers Trade Union Centre, said he spent Sunday interviewing survivors of the fire and they all told the same grim story: They heard a fire alarm ringing and tried to leave the building.
“The management said, there is nothing, it will be stopped within some minutes, you work.”
Workers went back up into the building, but the fire spread rapidly through the second and third floors; only those on the fourth floor and above had the chance to try to jump, he said. “The others were caught in flames and died.”
Kalpana Akter, a prominent labour activist in Dhaka, heard about the fire on Saturday night and rushed to the site, arriving shortly after midnight. She said when she arrived, she was told that nine people were dead. The fire was raging. “But I didn’t hear any more screams,” she said. She concluded the rest of the workers must have gotten out – only when firefighters were able to enter the building 12 hours later did she learn that, in fact, the lack of screams was because others trapped inside had suffocated.
Firefighters told her that the third-floor emergency exits were locked, and 12 bodies were found piled in front of them, said Ms. Akter, who heads the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity.
These allegations have not been confirmed and neither Mr. Hossain nor the Tuba Group were available for comment.
Ms. Akter also said she had spoken to many survivors who made it out of the building and told her they tried to leave when they heard the fire alarm, but managers told them it was only a drill. “They forced them to keep working on the floor – so when they finally saw the smoke, they panicked, but by then the power was gone, the lights were out and they were suffocating. They couldn’t get back down, the fire started on the ground floor – and there were piles of fabric and yarn blocking the doors,” she said.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of apparel, after China; the growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh has employed thousands of new work-force entrants, particularly young women, among its three million workers, and it has played a critical role in the huge gains the country has made in lowering poverty rates in recent years.