Bangladesh & Pakistan: Tragic Fires Underscore Urgent Safety Needs
On November 24, in one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of Bangladesh, a deadly fire at a Dhaka garment factory claimed the lives of more than 110 workers. Reports say there were no fire escapes and that the exit door was locked. SAI expresses our heartfelt sympathy for the victims and their families. These dreadful disasters, the latest in a long series of fires in the South Asian apparel industry, call for broad international cooperation and rapid reforms in Pakistani and Bangladeshi enforcement of their labor laws. Business, civil society and government must work together to minimize industrial fires in the future and to ensure that workers always have safe egress and adequate training to escape should a fire occur. That will require an effective anti-corruption program as well as extensive training at all levels, capacity building, and a central role for workers and their freely elected representatives.
The ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh, as well as across South Asia, continues to be a precarious occupation, and most of its workers are women. Since 2006, more than 600 workers have perished in fires at garment factories in Bangladesh. Since the fire at Tazreen on November 24, there has been yet another fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh. On Monday, November 28, in the suburb of Uttara, the Euro-Bangla Garment building caught fire, injuring at least eight workers.
These tragedies are grim reminders of the need to ensure adequate health and safety measures including fire evacuation procedures, with proper communication channels between workers and managers on actions to take in the event of a disaster and active involvement of workers in identifying and remediating hazards.
Two months ago in Karachi, Pakistan, a deadly fire at the Ali Enterprises garment factory on September 11 claimed the lives of nearly 300 workers. SAI has initiated a thorough investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding RINA's initial SA8000 audit of the factory and the reasons for the grim loss of life and encompassing on the ground in Pakistan 17 SA8000 certified facilities; it is being carried out by Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS) and AKUT Search and Rescue Association. In addition, fire inspections at every SA8000 certified factory in Pakistan are being carried out by the accredited audit bodies active there. The findings will be followed up with an in-depth analysis to determine what changes are needed in the overall system and with a public report.
We are thoroughly convinced that workers must be able to exercise their rights to participate fully with managers and owners to identify and prevent hazardous conditions and to assure safe and adequate egress at the workplace. This must be a fundamental principle of any initiative to address the continuing endemic problems in fire safety in the garment industry.
There are numerous opportunities to address this challenge comprehensively. Among these are some in which SAI has partnered. In 2013, SAI's "Pillars in Practice" program with the Danish Institute for Human Rights will build the capacity of civil society organizations in Bangladesh, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe to engage and train on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In Bangladesh, the CSR-Centre will build upon its experience in the ready-made garment sector by providing local stakeholders with tools to apply the "Protect, Respect and Remedy" Framework to address human rights challenges in the sector, beginning with fire safety and prevention and gender discrimination. This will also build upon earlier SAI training on fire safety and prevention in Bangladesh in 2010 with the ITGLWF (now IndustriALL) and in 2011 with Dundar Sahin from AKUT.
For more information about the fire at Ali Enterprises, read SAI's Q & A document: www.sa-intl.org/alienterprises. To learn more about Dundar Sahin's investigation in Pakistan, read his interview at www.sa-intl.org/dundarsahin.