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A man shows a piece of cloth which he says belong to his sister-in-law, a missing worker after a devastating fire in a garment factory which killed more than 100 people, in Savar Nov. 26, 2012.ANDREW BIRAJ/Reuters

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.

But those gains have not come without cost. Manufacturers have bitterly resisted efforts to organize workers – and safe working conditions have been a focus for would-be unionizers. In April, a leading labour-rights activist, Aminul Islam, was found brutally murdered; he had previously been detained and tortured by police and national security agents.

The country relies on low wages and operating costs to continue to attract international brands such as H&M and Target; angry workers have repeatedly clashed with police in recent months. The current minimum wage is about $40 a month.

NTD Apparel Inc., a Montreal-based apparel firm, stopped importing from the Tuba Group's Tazreen factory earlier this year because the company failed an audit.

"We had ethical-sourcing protocols that needed to be followed … and they didn't satisfy our needs," said Andrew Hattem, senior vice-president for the firm.

He would not be specific. However, the company says its suppliers have to follow a code of conduct and comply with labour laws, as well as those regarding worker safety and environmental standards.

NTD regularly sources garments from other factories in Bangladesh.

In May, 2011, the factory that burned received an initial "orange" rating by Wal-Mart after a safety audit – after three such ratings in two years, Wal-Mart stops ordering from a producer for at least a year. The company had also been slammed for poor safety standards at two other factories in a March, 2011, audit shared on the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, and for failing to pay minimum wage and blocking exits, aisles and stairwells by NTD Apparel Inc., in January, 2011.

Fires, in the hulking, poorly ventilated concrete buildings that house the garment factories, are a frequent occurrence; workers joke grimly about preferring jobs that post them near the scarce windows because then at least they might have the chance to jump.

A fire shut down another Dhaka garment factory on Monday; no one died in that blaze, which erupted even as angry garment workers were protesting safety standards nearby.

International ethical trade organizations have pressured the factories – many of which are owned by foreign investors, most from East Asia – to improve safety standards, and some improvements have been made. However, the government – eager to hold on to the inflow of foreign currency– has done little to push enforcement, and almost all the safety auditing is carried out by firms such as Wal-Mart, for which Tuba Group is a major supplier.

Siddiqur Rahman, vice-president of the manufacturer's association, insisted Mr. Hossain and the Tuba Group had no culpability in the fire, which he said was an accident. "He has three factories, he cannot stay at one all the time [to make sure all instructions are followed]," he said of Mr. Hossain, before adding that he personally had visited a number of survivors in hospitals, none of whom told him doors and stairwells had been locked or blocked.

He said the Tazreen factory last conducted a fire drill on November 5; until a full investigation is made it is impossible to say why so many workers died if safety procedures were being followed, but he speculated that the problem may have been that the ground floor was being used as a warehouse for highly flammable yarn. "There were more than 1,400 workers and when they came down from the fourth or fifth floor, they were late," he said.

He said he had been speaking frequently since the fire with Mr. Hossain, who had cut no corners on worker safety. "Nobody likes [a fire]," he said. "Who is losing? The owner. I understand a lot of people died but the owner will be finished."

With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Agence France-Presse

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated Wal-Mart's policy on safety audits for suppliers. This version has been corrected.


A brief history of Bangladesh's garment industry

After independence in 1971, Bangladesh initially followed a planned-economy socialist model, but quickly experienced crippling shortages. Over the next decade, the government moved to a more capitalist-oriented model, and the garment industry emerged alongside jute processing as a cornerstone of manufacturing. From the 1980s, factory owners pursued a "feminization" policy – employing a mostly female workforce (as much as 90 per cent women), ostensibly because the women had "nimble fingers" and skill in sewing. In fact, labour analysts say, factories preferred women because they were perceived to be more docile and less likely to agitate around working conditions.

The industry staked its competitiveness on extremely low wages which was possible because of huge unemployment, a dearth of formal sector work and extreme poverty, which made the $1-a-day jobs an appealing alternative for the rural poor who flooded the export-processing zones on the edge of the capital.

Through the late 1990s and early part of this decade, Bangladesh also leveraged a World Trade Organization quota system, that gave it preferential access to the United States and European markets, to build up the size of its garment industry. There was concern that the end of the Multi-Fiber Agreement (the U.S. quota system) might cause large-scale unemployment, but Bangladesh weathered that hurdle and continued to grow, in part by continuing to keep wages among lowest in the world. Businesses opted to stay in Dhaka despite repeated episodes of political upheaval on the national level; the sector was usually unscathed, in part because many of the country's most prominent and wealthy families had become key players.

Once the industry was built up – to the point where it provides 80 per cent of manufactured exports – government became keen to protect it, and factory owners were successful in most of their efforts to block agitation for higher wages. There was widespread labour unrest in 2006, which finally forced the creation of a minimum wage of $24 a month for entry-level workers, and a strike involving more than 100,000 workers pushed it up again in 2010 – today, the minimum wage is $37. But factory owners have managed to block many unionization efforts – a leading labour organizer was tortured and murdered this year after being repeatedly harassed by police and government security agents – and audits by international fair trade organizations consistently find violations of minimum wage payments, safety standards and working conditions.

Today Bangladesh is second only to China in the size of its garment export industry, and while China now faces intense pressure on wages, Bangladesh has kept them low, recognizing this as the country's chief lure for an internationally mobile garment production sector.

The predominance of women in Bangladesh's garment factory has had startling social consequences; as many young women became the only breadwinners in their extended families, traditional social mores about gender and age were upended. The country saw a marked improvement in its level of gender equality and because of it, many development theorists say Bangladesh has made some of the most significant progress of any developing nation in lowering poverty levels and achieving many Millennium Development goals. The country has dramatically lowered its child mortality rate, increased girls' education and access to clean water, and has improved nutrition levels. Bangladesh, long derided as a "basket case," now far outstrips neighbouring India in the rate of improvement of these basic development indicators.