DHAKA, Nov 29, 2012 – Bangladesh’s fire department launched a surprise inspection blitz of hundreds of garment factories Thursday after 110 workers were killed in a fire at the weekend as they made clothes for Western retailers. As activists stepped up their campaign for better safety by protesting outside the industry’s main office in downtown Dhaka, scores of inspectors descended in the suburb of Ashulia where most of the factories are based.
“We have set up 15 teams to inspect the factories,” Abdus Salam, administrative director of the Bangladesh fire department, told AFP. “Initially we’ll inspect all 574 factories at Ashulia and then it will be carried out in other factories across the country.” Each team of around five inspectors was tasked with checking everything from the accessibility of fire exits to the extinguishing systems. Authorities have said that the nine-storey Tazreen Fashion factory which was gutted by Saturday night’s blaze only had permission for three floors.
There have also been accusations that managers at the plant had told employees to stay at their work stations when the fire broke out and that the activation of a fire alarm was only a routine drill. Firefighters have told AFP that all three of the factory fire exits led to the ground floor, meaning staff working upstairs were effectively trapped. However in an interview Thursday with Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper, the factory’s owner Delwar Hossain said labour department officials had visited several times but had not raised any questions about exit routes.
“Nobody even advised me to install one… apart from the existing ones,” Hossain said. Around 700 garment workers have been killed in dozens of fires since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group. None of the owners have been prosecuted over previous blazes. Activists and industry workers have staged a series of demonstrations since the tragedy and on Thursday, around 100 draped themselves in white death shrouds and lay down as if dead outside the offices of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the industry’s umbrella body. “The price of a life is more than 40 dollars a month”, read one of their
placards in reference to the minimum salary that a garment worker makes by sewing clothing for retailers such as US giant Walmart.
Police said about 300 people, including university students, journalists and singers joined the protests, which lasted about one hour at the city’s Karwan Bazaar area.