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Boiler Accident Injures 7 in Bangladesh as Labor Unrest Rises

Seven workers were injured after a boiler exploded in a garment factory in Bangladesh on Saturday, igniting a fire that was quickly contained before emergency services could respond, local media reported.

The accident occurred at Ambia Fashion in Agrabad, a downtown commercial district in the city of Chittagong, the South Asian country’s second-largest. Three fire units rushed to the scene but the blaze was already doused by the time they arrived. Two workers received burns from the blast, according to the Business Standard, while five others were hurt while hurrying out of the factory after the explosion. The building itself avoided major damage.

Boiler accidents are an ongoing concern for Bangladesh’s garment industry. Last June, two workers died in a blast at a dyeing facility near the capital of Dhaka. In 2017, a similar explosion at an apparel factory in Konbari killed 10 people and injured dozens. Ambia Fashion isn’t covered by the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, the successor of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a binding safety agreement between brands and trade unions that arose in the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza multi-factory complex, which killed 1,134 people.

“This tragic accident again highlights the importance of boiler safety inspections and remediation,” Joris Oldenziel executive director of the International Accord Foundation, which is based in Amsterdam, told Sourcing Journal.

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While the original agreement didn’t cover boiler inspections, they were included following a 2018 pilot that uncovered defects in all 35 boilers belonging to 17 Accord-covered garment factories. Factory inspections are now conducted in Bangladesh through the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), a tripartite organization composed of factory owners, brands and trade unions that noted in its 2020-2021 annual report that it’s poised to “fully integrate” its boiler safety program into the overall inspection framework. The RSC has also developed a new standard operating procedure that takes a “risk-based approach” to boiler safety.

Progress has been slow, however. Of the 100 factories it has targeted for external visual inspections of their boilers, it has only been able to check off 10 over the past year. Labor campaigners say the program is understaffed, with only a handful of inspectors for the whole of Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China. Another issue is that boilers need to be turned off and cooled down before inspections can take place, which can scupper production for an entire day, something factory owners are reluctant to allow.

“This sad incident once more shows that transparent and reliable boiler safety inspections are of utmost importance for the safety of workers,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and advocacy groups, told Sourcing Journal. “We very much welcomed the inclusion of boiler inspections into the Accord program in 2018, but we worry about the lack of progress in its implementation by the RSC.”

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a member of the RSC, said it was committed to a safer workplace. “Thanks to the 10-inch walls around the affected boiler, there were no serious casualties,” Miran Ali, vice president at the organization, told Sourcing Journal. He said that contrary to the Business Standard’s report, only two workers were injured during evacuation and were released after receiving first aid.

It’s widely accepted that safety improvements across 1,600 Accord-covered factories have made conditions markedly safer for more than two million workers. What throws a wrench into Bangladesh’s post-Rana Plaza rehabilitation, however, are the remediation laggards that fall outside the Accord’s purview. According to a September study by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladesh-based think tank, the number of worker injuries in predominantly medium and large ready-made garment factories rose by nearly 24 percent between 2019 and 2020. Labor unrest is also on the uptick, the ​​Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, a watchdog group for trade union activity, revealed Sunday. Of the 431 protests that took place over the past year, 172 of them were led by garment workers demanding owed wages or better pay.

All these issues hang in the balance as Bangladesh’s garment industry rebounds from its Covid-19-induced order-cancelation crisis, which left suppliers in the lurch and workers facing layoffs. The turnaround has been sharp, however. The country racked up $4 billion in apparel exports in December, its highest-ever monthly record, Faruque Hassan, president of the BGMEA said at the Economic Reporters Forum in Dhaka last week. Soon it’ll be capable of wrangling monthly orders worth $7 billion to $8 billion.

“We’re getting huge orders from our regular buyers, and a large number of new buyers rush here with apparel supply orders as [the] production strength of Bangladesh has gained a trust among global buyers to supply products in all weather,” he said.

To make sure Bangladesh gets a better deal, the BGMEA and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association are working on a unified code of conduct, including a converged audit protocol that does away with duplicative audits. The decision comes on the heels of a study that concluded that “audit harmonization” could save garment suppliers tens of thousands of dollars for reinvesting into workplace improvements, including new technologies, community programs and enhanced social protections for workers.

“We have been talking for a unified code of conduct for many years,” Hassan told the Financial Express. “Local manufacturers have to conduct various audits, complying with a wide range of requirements as prescribed by buyers. As a result, these create audit fatigue, increase costs and take much time.”