NEW DELHI — 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 1,000 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 at about 11 p.m. when the blaze erupted, trapping them. The factory was closed at the time. According to doctors and local fire officials, most of the victims apparently suffocated.
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 improve safety standards, 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 self-reflection by Bangladeshi officials and business owners as well as foreign calls for change as Western apparel companies battle charges that their production is built on exploitation.
“There’s a perception on the part of (Bangladeshi) manufacturers that they need to do something and cooperate with the government because of the stakes,” said M. Alimullah Miyan, vice chancellor with Dhaka’s International University of Business, Agriculture and Technology. “There could be some change. But at the same time, global brands also need to improve the margins they pay.”
Past campaigns and costly fire and safety regulations have been largely watered down or ignored, however, critics say.
The Bangladesh garment industry, a national golden goose, is politically well-connected. Clothing accounts for a whopping 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion in annual exports and employs 4 million people, with dozens of lawmakers closely linked to factory owners.
And while many Western apparel companies adopt codes of conduct, they’re keen to drive production costs down and maximize profit atop an industry of constantly changing subcontractors. Feeding all this are Western consumers looking for cheap deals.
The average wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 10 to 30 cents an hour, labor activists say, and many of the factories lack fire escapes, windows or emergency exits.
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.
“We will close down factories deemed to be dangerous,” Textiles and Jute Minister Abdul Latif Siddique said at a news conference.