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24 Injured, 20 Dead at Garment Factory Inferno in Egypt

At least 20 workers were killed and 24 injured in Egypt Thursday after a fire ravaged a four-story garment factory in the Al Qalyubia province north of Cairo, according to a statement from the local governor’s office.

More than a dozen fire engines rushed to the scene to contain the inferno, and victims were transferred to several local hospitals, the statement noted. Prosecution and technical teams, it added, are investigating the cause of the fire at the unnamed facility and assessing the extent of the damage, though a preliminary inspection suggested that a gas leak triggered an explosion that later ignited into flames.

One survivor who suffered burns to 25 percent of his body said he nearly succumbed to smoke inhalation before escaping the blaze. “I had two young women with me and a young man who I pushed so they could avoid the blaze,” Mahmoud Mohamed told the Al Youm al-Sabea newspaper. “I led them outside, running as the fire burned my body.”

Factory fires are common in Egypt, where a security vacuum following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011 resulted in an upswell of illegal buildings constructed without little to no regard for safety standards. A 2018 report issued by the ministry of local development cited more than 2 million building violations between 2000 and 2017.

Last month a 13-story apartment building in Cairo erupted in flames after an unlicensed leather factory that occupied its first three floors caught fire. The conflagration, which took firefighters a day to extinguish, ended up damaging the building’s foundations, forcing its demolition. In May 2020, a fire broke out at a mattress factory in the same industrial area, though no losses of life were reported.

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The garment industry at large, too, has long struggled with fire and building safety. Brands, chasing cheap labor, frequently outsource production to parts of the world with lax national regulations and even weaker oversight.

Just this week, at least one worker died and more than 40 were injured or sickened after a fire tore through a chemicals warehouse at a garment factory in the capital of Dhaka in Bangladesh. In February, 28 workers, including a 14-year-old girl, died in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier after heavy rains flooded a house that was being used as an illegal textile factory. Above all, the specter of the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed 1,134 workers and injured or maimed thousands more in Dhaka, continues to haunt conversations about worker safety in the sector.

“Brands and retailers must take responsibility for the safety and health of the workers making their clothes—this means ensuring that the buildings they work in are safe, but also that they aren’t exposed to dangerous chemicals, an environment of sexual harassment or a workplace situation where Covid-19 is likely to spread,” Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, told Sourcing Journal, noting that the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was forged in the wake of Rana Plaza has “made factories safer and offers workers a credible and transparent safety mechanism.”

“This tragedy, as well as the recent factory incident in Morocco, shows the urgent need to expand the scope of this program and to negotiate an international binding agreement as unions have been proposing for over a year now,”  Miedema added. “Brands and retailers must step up now to make this a reality.”