The blaze at the Smart Export Garments factory, which erupted on Saturday afternoon in a densely populated area of Dhaka, the capital, is the latest tragedy for a Bangladeshi garment industry that is now the world's second-biggest clothing exporter, trailing only China. Two months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers, where jeans, lingerie and sweaters were made for retailers like Wal-Mart and Sears.
International labour advocates, who have been pressing global brands and retailers to help pay to upgrade fire-safety measures in Bangladeshi factories, said the latest fire was a grim reminder of how conditions must be improved to ensure the safety of workers who are paid as little as $37 a month to make clothing for Western retailers and consumers. Just since November, advocates say, Bangladesh has also experienced 18 other nonfatal factory fires.
"After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, in a statement.
On Sunday, labels from several French brands, including Sol's, Scott and Fox and G Blog by Gemo could be seen in the burned second-floor Smart Export Garments factory. Two other labels manufactured for Inditex, the world's largest fashion group, were also visible - Leftie's and Bershka.
Labour activists found labels for the German low-cost brand, KIK, and a purchase order by a New York firm, M. Hidary & Co., for Hawaiian Authentics swimwear.
Inditex, a conglomerate that operates more than 5,000 stores worldwide, is perhaps best known for the popular Spanish brand Zara. Company executives in Spain could not be reached for comment on Sunday. But a Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, quoted an unnamed local representative for the company as saying that Inditex was unaware that the Smart Export factory was making its goods.
"We are now sifting through the purchase order documents to know who were given the work orders and how Smart Export Garment Ltd. got the orders under subcontract," the unnamed company official told The Daily Star. "The actual receivers of purchase orders have given the work orders to Smart Export Garment in a sneaky way without informing the buyer."
Global brands have promised Western consumers that clothes are manufactured in safe factories that are inspected through regular audits, often conducted by third-party auditing firms. But the fire at the Smart Export Garments factory has again exposed loopholes in that system: the factory was filling many orders on subcontracts with other suppliers for global brands. It was unclear whether the factory had ever been audited.
The Bangladeshi authorities have confirmed that the building was illegally constructed and lacked proper fire-safety measures, including extinguishers and emergency exits. More than 300 workers were inside the factory when the fire erupted Saturday. Most of the workers were young seamstresses who panicked after discovering that one exit was blocked by a locked metal gate. Some jumped from windows to escape.
"We are sure that this factory doesn't have a fire license, and they never applied for one," said Mamun Mahmud, a fire official who is part of a special committee investigating the blaze. He noted that a fire safety license was mandatory for all garment factories in Bangladesh.
Moreover, the factory was apparently hiring teenagers. In Bangladesh, labour laws allow teenagers as young as 14 to work in non-hazardous jobs. The legal age to work in a garment factory is a bit unclear. Mahmud, the fire official, said garment factories were not supposed to hire anyone younger than 18; others say the age limit is 16. Several of the fire victims were 16 or 17, according to their families, while labour groups say one victim was only 15.
Moyna Akter, 20, had worked in the factory for two months before quitting. But her younger sister, Kohinur, kept working, as a helper, earning as little as $30 a month. She died in the fire.
"I will not work anymore for any garment factory," Moyna Akter said.
Several workers remain hospitalized with injuries from the fire, including at least one in critical condition. Yet local labour advocates say that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a powerful industry trade group, has refused to provide assistance to the injured, since the burned factory was not a member of the group.
One of the injured workers, Samsur Nahar, is said to be unconscious and suffering seizures at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Family members say she is being kept in a ward so crowded that she does not have a bed.