This article was updated Friday morning with the latest figures.
At least eight people perished Wednesday when a blaze raced through a garment factory in Bangladesh. The fire comes just weeks after the building collapse at Rana Plaza claimed more than 1,000 lives.
Wednesday’s fire hit an 11-story industrial and residential complex in Dhaka, the capital. The factory, which was closed when the flames took hold, occupied the first two floors with dwellings situated above. A police official and the factory owner are reportedly among the dead.
The latest incident is yet another reminder of the dangers facing workers in Bangladesh’s export-driven garment industry. Bangladesh has notoriously poor workplace inspection mechanisms, and repeated attempts to institute minimum safety regulations have been thwarted in the name of profit.
Just before 9 a.m. on April 24, the eight-story Rana Plaza, which contained five garment factories, collapsed in the Dhaka suburb of Savar. The building housed at least 3,500 workers and opened despite warnings to close after severe cracks appeared in walls. The owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, has already been brought before a court and had his assets seized.
“Given the long record of worker deaths in factories, this [Rana Plaza] tragedy was sadly predictable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Bangladeshi workers receive among the world’s lowest wages — reaching about $37 per month after a series of violent protests in 2010 — and must toil in sweatshop conditions to fill orders catering to consumers in Europe and the U.S.
In November, 112 garment workers died in a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. in Dhaka. There were then 41 other “fire incidents” in Bangladesh factories — killing nine workers and injuring more than 660 — in the following five months.
Last week, the Walt Disney Co. announced that it would no longer produce licensed merchandise in Bangladesh in the wake of recent accidents. Yet some labor-rights activists question whether abandoning the country completely is not adding to the hardships of its impoverished workers. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, apparel accounts for about 80% of Bangladesh’s export economy — the second largest in the world after China — employing an estimated 3 million workers and generating a total of $23 billion annually.
Companies seeking to escape Bangladesh may be overlooking some harsh truths. The International Labor Rights Forum presented the first Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement to more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Gap, Walmart and H&M — at a meeting in Dhaka in 2011. However, this was rejected because of the extra costs involved and the possibility of incurring legal action. An updated proposal was once again presented to major retailers in November, but was only signed by PVH Corp. — owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein — and the German retailer Tchibo.