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Deadly Bangladesh Fire Renews Safety Concerns Despite Garment Sector Progress

Since the deadly 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, Bangladesh has been scrutinized for its safety conditions, overhauled with the aid of international safety organizations determined to right the wrongs of the country’s garment factories, and improved with the recent introduction of a digital map of its garment factories.

Now, however, a fire that killed 70 people there this week is giving rise to new questions about how far the country’s regulatory measures and safety enforcement has really come.

A fire that broke out late Wednesday in Old Dhaka felled Wahed Mansion, a building amid the city’s Chawkbazar that housed chemicals, plastics and cosmetic goods, according to local reports in BD News 24.

While the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense, and the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Explosives are working on final reports expected to be released this week, they are so far claiming the fire started inside of the building. Reports first pointed to the cause as an electrical transformer exploding, though later reports refuted that.

Regardless, the chemicals and plastics likely helped further spread the blaze, collapsing walls, a gate and floors in its wake, and killing as many as 67 people.

“There were canisters to refill gas lighters which are also flammable. There were others chemical [sic] that also helped the fire to spread quickly,” Bangladesh fire service director lieutenant colonel S M Zulfiqar Rahman told BD News 24 on Friday. “The wall of this building exploded outwards and hit those two buildings following the explosion.”

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Connections are being drawn to similar fires that have plagued the country before.

“With Rana Plaza there was a global-supply chain and the whole world was looking, and brands become part of the solutions,” Sara Hossain, a lawyer for Bangladesh’s Supreme Court who represented injured parties in a 2010 fire in a residential area in Nimtoli told The Wall Street Journal. However, she said, the same standards that emerged following the Rana Plaza tragedy, which gave rise to the now mostly terminated Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, haven’t yet extended to the rest of the country.

Both the Accord and Alliance had five-year terms, which ended in 2018 and Bangladesh has been trying to transition to its own, locally run Remediation Coordination Cell amid mixed reviews about its ability to carry on the safety inspection and remediation missions considering the Cell’s infancy. The Alliance said in December that it had overseen 93 percent of remediations across its 654 affiliated factories and that it was leaving Bangladesh “dramatically improved.”

While the latest fire draws to light questions about the country’s structural safety, Hossain said, for one, that the government’s ability to remove industrial chemicals from residential areas would test whether it will in fact enforce safety regulations without the watchful eyes of international corporations.

“In this case it’s a national issue, and it’s for us to solve it,” Hossain told the Journal.