Survivors have described how a fire tore through a multi-storey garment factory just outside Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, killing more than 100 of their colleagues in one of the worst such incidents in recent years.
Muhammad Shahbul Alam, 26, described flames filling two of the three stairwells of the nine-floor building – where clothes for international brands including high-street names appear to have been made — shortly after the fire alarm had been raised.
Rooms full of female workers were cut off as piles of yarn and fabric filling corridors ignited. Reports also suggested fire exits at the site had locks on, which had to be broken in order for staff to escape.
"It was 6.45pm when the fire alarm was raised. I rushed out. I heard that [grills blocking the way to] the second and third floors were locked. When I came down, I saw fire at both the stairways that the ladies used. I still have not found any trace of my sister-in-law," Alam told the Guardian.
According to Zakir Hossain, another worker, management told their employees not to evacuate immediately.
"The office staff asked us to stay where we were, telling us not to panic. We did not listen to them and started moving out," Hossain recalled. "A lot of people were stuck there. Some people got out climbing down the bamboo [scaffolding] tied against the building."
Witnesses said many workers leapt from upper stories in a bid to escape the flames. Twelve workers died in hospital from injuries sustained in falls, officials said, bringing the overall toll to 123 dead and more than 150 injured.
The blaze will focus attention once more on the conditions in which workers producing clothes for sale in the west work.
Fires in textiles and garments factories across south Asia have killed hundreds in recent months. More than 280 died in one at a site in Karachi, Pakistan, in September.
Delwar Hossein, the managing director of the Dhaka factory, told the Guardian that the factory, Tazreen Fashions, had been making clothes for European high street giant C&A among other clients.
"I lived on these workers' efforts," he said. "I could not do anything for my workers. I do not know what went wrong and cannot understand why the staff could not get out of the building."
There was no immediate response from C&A.
The factory, in the Ashulia industrial zone, is one of around 4,000 such installations in Bangladesh, many of which operate with minimal safeguards against fire or industrial accidents. The country annually earns about £12.5bn from exports of garment products, mainly to the US and Europe.
Earlier this year, more than 300 factories near the capital were shut for almost a week as workers demanded higher wages and better working conditions.
Siddiq Ur Rahman, acting president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said the families of the dead would receive 100,000 aka (£760) as compensation.
Abu Nayeem Mohammad Shahidullah, director general of the Dhaka fire brigade, told reporters the toll could still rise.
Army soldiers and border guards had been deployed to help police keep order at the scene of the tragedy as thousands of anxious and angry relatives of the factory workers gathered.
Kalpona Akter, from the Bangladesh Centre for Workers' Solidarity (BCWS), said: "We initially thought the fire broke out from generator but I checked the generator room today and it was not from there.".
Akter said that locks on exits at the factory had been broken, indicating that the gates had been locked when the fire broke out. Most bodies are too badly burned for immediate investigation. Fire service officials have said they believe a short circuit was responsible.
With an annual revenue of nearly $500 billion, Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, sourcing consumer goods from thousands of suppliers around the globe. By offering products to consumers at rock-bottom prices, Walmart has successfully positioned itself as the leading low-cost retailer. The company has pioneered a business approach in which it uses its vast market power to drive down prices, threatening to terminate suppliers if they can’t meet the retailer’s strict demands for low-cost products. Walmart has honed this strategy so sharply that it has come to be known as “the Walmart model.” But this model comes at a steep price for workers.
112 workers were killed in the fire at Tazreen Fashions. The factory lacked proper fire exits, yet Walmart and other buyers failed to implement the necessary repairs. Credit: Hasan Raza, Associated Press.
On November 24, 2012, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh killed 112 workers and injured more than 200, making it the deadliest fire in the country’s history. The circumstances surrounding the blaze were frustratingly similar to previous deadly fires in the Bangladesh garment industry: poor quality electrical wiring led to a short-circuit on the ground floor of the factory, where flammable materials caught fire. The flames spread quickly through the upper floors, and the lack of proper fire exits left workers trapped inside the burning building. Some workers died due to smoke inhalation, others died jumping from upper story windows as they tried to escape the blaze, and others burned to death in the flames.
At the time of the fire, the factory’s customers included Disney, Sears/Kmart, Dickies, Li & Fung, the Dutch company C&A, and Walmart. Although Walmart initially denied a relationship with the factory, evidence found onsite showed that Walmart’s in-house fashion line, Faded Glory, was being sewn there in the weeks leading up the tragedy.
Between 2011 and 2012, Walmart auditors visited the Tazreen factory at least three times and on at least one occasion, identified “violations and/or conditions which were deemed to be high risk,” for which the factory received an “orange” rating. These violations included a “lack of fire alarms in many areas, a shortage of fire extinguishers and obstacles blocking workers’ escape routes.” Although Walmart’s inspections did not specifically look at whether the factory had functional emergency exits, any competent inspector should have been able to see that Tazreen lacked proper fire exits and that the building’s stairwells led directly to the ground floor, instead of outside. Rather than correcting these hazards, which likely would have prevented a significant loss of life in the subsequent fire, Walmart removed Tazreen from its list of approved factories at some point during 2012.
Nonetheless, several Walmart suppliers continued sourcing from the facility. When reporters contacted the company about its relationship with Tazreen in the wake of the fire, Walmart claimed that the factory “was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart” and stated that a supplier had “subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.” But documents found at the scene showed that at least three different Walmart suppliers were sourcing from the factory even after Walmart supposedly removed Tazreen from its list of approved suppliers.
In a country known for its history of deadly fires and building collapses, it almost defies reason that Walmart, the single largest buyer from Bangladesh, was not adequately monitoring or implementing fire and building safety standards at its suppliers. The company was fully aware of the risks. In April 2011, a meeting was held in Dhaka between global brands, Bangladeshi suppliers, government representatives, and civil society organizations to discuss the ongoing safety crisis in the country’s apparel industry. According to the official record of the meeting, Walmart’s representative stated that the improvements being discussed would be “in most cases” a “very extensive and costly modification.” More than 18 months before the Tazreen fire, Walmart was acknowledging that most of its Bangladesh factories were in need of major repairs and renovations.
Yet the company did nothing. According to an internal email from a Walmart executive in December 2012, “Fire and electrical safety aspects are not currently covered in ethical sourcing audits.” And at the April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, Walmart refused to take financial responsibility for making its factories safe, stating, “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.” Publicly, however, Walmart was reassuring consumers that it would “not buy from an unsafe factory.” It is deeply disturbing to consider that Walmart knew about the deadly hazards at its Bangladesh suppliers and did nothing to fix them. If it had, perhaps those workers who died in the Tazreen fire might still be alive today.
The empty promises of CSR have failed to protect workers the world over, and Walmart’s supply chain is no exception. Left to their own devices, corporations will always refuse to relinquish any control over their supply chain or devote any of their revenue to improvements for workers. This is why such commitments must take the form of legally binding agreements, enforced through strict market consequences and implemented as part of a WSR program.
It wasn’t until the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a strong example of WSR at work, was implemented in Bangladesh that garment factories there began to undergo investigations by skilled inspectors, and that life-saving repairs began to be made. Unfortunately, Walmart, along with Gap Inc., another prominent US buyer from Bangladesh, has refused to join the Accord. Instead, these companies have chosen to form their own voluntary initiative, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which lacks virtually all of the elements necessary for an inspection and remediation program to be effective.