DHAKA // Western garment firms have been accused of hiding behind flimsy safety audits after the latest lethal garment factory fire in South Asia, where poorly paid workers often toil in dangerous conditions.
The night shift at the Tazreen Fashion plant outside the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka was hard at work when the blaze erupted late on Saturday, killing 110 employees with many trapped inside unable to escape the flames and smoke.
The fire came after 289 people died in Pakistan's port city of Karachi in September, in a similar blaze that again highlighted the export garment sector's dismal safety record.
"Many factory owners either deceive or buy their way to so-called safety compliance which is designed to satisfy overseas buyers keen to get garments at low prices," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
"This is another glaring indictment of the failure of the so-called private sector corporate social responsibility model," he said. Bangladesh held a mass burial yesterday for victims burnt beyond identification.
Tuba Group, which owns the Tazreen plant, said on its website that its factories make clothes for well-known global retail giants including Walmart, Carrefour, Ikea and C&A.
Tuba, which employs nearly 7,000 people, also says it has a certificate of compliance from Wrap (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production), which promotes safe and ethical manufacturing.
The US-based Wrap, which is often criticised for being industry-funded, denied yesterday that it had certified the Tazreen factory.
State-run safety checks in South Asia are also poor, with Mr Robertson describing them as "a world-class joke" and saying western chains using the independently owned factories must take direct responsibility for workers.
"The only people who actually believe the labour inspection system does anything are the ministers and officials who have a vested interest in perpetuating the fiction of its effectiveness," he said.
Bangladesh has emerged as the world's second-largest clothes exporter with phenomenal growth in the last decade driven by cheap labour, tax breaks and subsidised energy.
The sector is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country's economy, employing 40 per cent of its industrial workforce.
Bangladeshi garment workers, 80 per cent of whom are female, earn between 3,000 taka (Dh99) and 10,000 taka a month for six shifts each week in huge, crowded factories that often stay open around the clock.
Many premises fail to meet basic standards, with common complaints of fire exits being inadequate or locked, stairs blocked, firefighting equipment missing, flammable material not stored properly and wiring left exposed.
After the fire in Karachi, Pakistan authorities said they had started a safety overhaul, but workers' rights campaigners say nothing has changed on the factory floor.
The Karachi fire was caused by an electricity short circuit and a similar problem may have triggered the Bangladesh blaze.
In an effort to tackle the industry's poor safety record, US-based PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, in March signed an agreement with Bangladeshi and international labour rights groups.
The programme supports professional building inspections, training and a regular review of safety issues, but trade unions said it has had limited overall impact on the sector.
"The deal has not made much headway due to non-participation by major brands like Walmart, Gap and Carrefour," Amirul Haque Amin, head of the National Garment Workers Federation, said.
"The problem is when it comes to workers' safety, western retailers mostly offer lip service."
Europe-based C&A, which had an order for 220,000 sweaters from the Bangladesh factory, and Hong Kong company Li & Fung, another Tazreen client, both expressed their deep condolences at the deaths.
"A major accident raises awareness and then it soon dies out," warned Salim Newaz, a former Dhaka fire chief who led several rescue operations during factory blazes.
"Owners spend very little money on safety, and most of the factories have shoddy electrical wiring. They don't know how to manage chemicals and very often fabrics and clothes clog up the place, delaying rescues."
The Ashulia industrial zone, where Tazreen is located, last suffered a major blaze in 2010 when 25 workers died, and the Clean Clothes Campaign rights group has said 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in fires since 2006.
"We have become a huge garment exporter in the last decade, but it has come at the expense of workers' lives," Babul Akter, the head of Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, said.
With about 4,500 factories, Bangladesh shipped apparel worth more than US$19 billion (Dh69bn) abroad last year, second only to China.