Fire alarm

November 29, 2012 - 4:16:18 am

Police in Bangladesh arrested three supervisors of a garments factory that was destroyed in a massive blaze which killed at least 112 workers, and had the nation pondering the future of its industrial model that to a major extent depends on manufacturing business outsourced from the developed world. Tazreen Fashions Ltd was into making garments for major brands like Wal-Mart. The inferno drew headlines across the world amid thousands in the impoverished nation protesting against lax safety standards at manufacturing facilities. 

The grapevine went into an overdrive yesterday with reports hinting at sabotage, an aspect not completely ruled out by the government. 

Bangladesh, nestled between India on the east and north and Myanmar in the south, has mostly been at the receiving end of destructive events—from natural calamities like floods and storms to blazes and massacres. Ferry tragedies in which hundreds drown have become the leitmotif of a floundering administration tolerant of creaky safety regulations. Governance in the country has been a major calamity with an unstable polity buckling under the heat of a power scramble mounted by major political parties. As the country struggled to come out of the shock inflicted by the garments factory blaze yesterday, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led 18 party alliance held a huge rally near the capital and announced a countrywide road blockade for December 9. The alliance led by opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia is demanding a return to the system of caretaker government during elections.  The factory blaze that has put the heat on the outsourcing policies of some multinational brands and brought under glare once again conditions under which workers in the south Asian nation work. Preliminary investigations have revealed that the supervisors at the nine-storey building at the factory were not allowed to leave the premises as fire alarms went off. The arrested officials are reported to have misled the workers into believing that it was a false alarm. There have also been allusions to doors being padlocked to keep alarmed workers from fleeing. If this is proved to be true, nothing can be more heinous in the criminality of negligence.

This is not the first time that workers’ plight has come to the fore in Bangladesh. Earlier this year, there were huge protests in the capital by factory workers demanding higher wages. It was then that the world awoke to the helplessness of factory employees who in the absence of alternative employment avenues go into garment-making in factories owned by owners who hardly care for them and leave most of them fending for themselves.  

Amesterdam-based textiles rights group Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) has said that international brands have not been paying adequate attention to safety issues. Wal-Mart has, however, denied that it had contracted with the textile-maker, instead faulting the contractor who sub-contracted  the deal.

Dhaka has to wake up to its frailties and address such issues which not only hold back development but also strike at the root of good governance.