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3 More Fashion Factory Fires Underscore Urgent Need for Safety Strategy

Several fires tore through garment facilities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India over the past week, fanning calls by labor advocates for a legally binding fire and building safety agreement that covers all textile-producing countries.

On Saturday, five workers were injured in a conflagration that broke out at Niki Dyeing Printing and Finishing Mills in Sonargaon Upazila in the central Bangladeshi city of Narayanganj. The victims, the worst of whom has burns on 60 percent of his body, were admitted to the Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery, officials told the Dhaka Tribune.

Md Tanharul, deputy director of the Narayanganj Fire Service and Civil Defence, told the outlet that a leak from a gas pipeline, ignited by an electric spark, might have caused the fire, though the incident was still under investigation.

The same day, a blaze spread through an unnamed textile factory in the Attawa area of Gujranwala in neighboring Pakistan. Dunya News reported that 15 fire tenders and 46 firefighters took three hours of “hectic effort” to tame the flames. Though no one was injured in the accident, textiles, chemicals and equipment worth millions of rupees were reduced to ashes. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

A massive fire ripped through GS Traders, a shawl manufacturing factory in Hargobind Nagar in Punjab, India, last Tuesday, damaging goods and machinery worth hundreds of thousands of rupees. The facility was situated on the ground floor of a building that also housed the owner’s family. No one was injured in the incident, which brought 15 fire tenders to douse the flames, Aatish Rai, a sub-fire officer, told the Tribune. All family members were evacuated as a precautionary measure.

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While the fire was extinguished in less than an hour, residents said the fire could have spread to nearby buildings if firefighters hadn’t acted on time. Officials said a short circuit was to blame.

Even during a pandemic, factory fires remain one of the biggest causes of supply-chain disruptions across all industries, according to the latest report by Resilinc, a supply-chain risk monitoring and mapping platform. They’re getting worse, too. The company’s EventWatch AI, a 24/7 global event monitoring service, dispatched alerts on nearly 1,000 factory fires in 2020, a surge of 67 percent year over year. Human-health disruptions, including Covid-19-related events, in comparison, triggered just 453 alerts, though the impact of these proved more damaging than any other event type, Resilinc said.

As the clock runs out on the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which expires next week, labor advocates have been pressing for a global pact that would hold brands and retailers legally liable for remediating workplace hazards at their garment suppliers, no matter where they are in the world.

Despite growing chatter over the implementation of mandatory due-diligence legislation in the European Union and elsewhere, brands and retailers are “moving in the opposite direction” by allowing the Accord to run out and proposing a return to self-monitoring, they say.

“Factory problems are not new to this industry and we don’t think that issues around safety should be put to the side right now,” Christina Hajagos Clausen, garment director at IndustriALL Global Union, an Accord signatory, told reporters at a briefing last month. ”Right now is the time to move forward with a global agreement that would be legally binding. It’s quite important for workers, globally, to be able to go to work safely. This is not something that should only be for one group of workers in one country.”

Only two of the Accord’s nearly 200 signatories have expressed support for a new deal.

“The proposed extended and expanded agreement not only aligns with asks of global unions to ensure workers are safe and supported…but also fully aligns with our own beliefs,” Adil Rehman, ethical trade manager at Asos, wrote in a letter to Labour Behind the Label in April. “As such, we agree to sign an extended and expanded agreement on the condition that the agreement fulfills certain criteria, [including specifying] the brand’s obligations to ensure that the Accord standard, provisions and protocols can continue to be implemented.”

A few weeks ago, Tchibo echoed Asos’s call, writing in a statement that it agrees to sign a one-year extension to the current Accord, with an “element of expansion” to other countries. The upcoming decisions of brands, it said, will “demonstrate whether we as businesses are willing to walk our talk and voluntarily curtail our power to collaborate under legally binding principles to benefit the people in our supply chains.”

Furthermore, Tchibo added, Bangladesh is “only one country in the equation. We need to tackle more in terms of Safety (which would give Bangladesh an equal level playing field).”

Earlier this month, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, the labor signatories of the Accord withdrew their membership from the Readymade Garment Sustainability Council, “stripping away any credibility” of the tripartite body of factory owners, businesses and workers unions, which has already taken on most of the infrastructure, operations and staff of the Accord.

“Instead of bargaining over the next phase of our joint safety work in Bangladesh, the brands have pursued an ‘Accord Exit’ strategy designed to write away any meaningful role for unions in the future,” Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, said in a statement. “We can’t be a rubber stamp for an industry-brand partnership without real accountability and robust oversight. This is a time when we should be moving forward and building on progress, not going in reverse.”

“Unfinished business” in Bangladesh, too, abounds, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network and the Workers Rights Consortium wrote in a report in April. The unparalleled success of the Accord aside, deadly safety risks remain in a “substantial number” of factories producing for Accord signatory brands.

“It is important to recognize that, if the Accord agreement is not extended and expanded, the circumstances of factories with unresolved safety problems would get worse, not better,” the report wrote. “Factory safety is a continuous process that requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance; termination of the Accord would swiftly lead to backsliding at factories where progress has been completed.”