Several people are feared missing after a fire broke out Monday at a shoe factory warehouse in Delhi, India, drawing 31 fire tenders and 50 firefighters to battle the blaze.
Six of the 10 workers who were inside the two-story building when it ignited were rescued and a search is underway for the remaining four, authorities said. The cause of the inferno, which began at roughly 8:20 a.m. local time in the Udyog Nagar industrial area, is still under investigation, though a short circuit could be to blame, Parvinder Singh, deputy commissioner of police, told the Times of India.
“More than 30 vehicles have been pressed into service at the spot,” Atul Garg, director of the Delhi fire department, told the outlet. “But due to [the] huge amounts of inflammable material inside this factory, the fire has not been controlled yet.”
Families of the trapped workers, who have been holding vigil outside the factory, told the Indian Express that their relatives packed shoes for sale at online distributors. They were paid 7,500 Indian rupees ($101.17) per month and worked throughout Delhi’s latest lockdown, which began on April 19 and has only started relaxing this week. The families also said smaller fires had happened in the factory before, although no one has been injured so far. The workers were likely stuck, they said, because the warehouse has poor ventilation, no fire safety equipment and only one staircase.
Poor communication might also be to blame, Garg told the Hindu. “We were not given correct information in the first place,” he said. “We were not informed that workers were trapped inside. It was only after two hours into the operation, we found out that there were people trapped inside.”
This is only the latest fire to plague India’s garment industry, where workplace regulations are weakly enforced—if they exist in the first place—and multinational brands wave around nebulous codes of conduct when questioned about their culpability in industrial accidents.
In late May, a massive fire ripped through GS Traders, a shawl manufacturing factory in Hargobind Nagar in Punjab, India, 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.
The same month, a fire engulfed an illegally run knitting factory in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Firefighters recovered the charred bodies of four workers who were found near the second-floor stairs, indicating that they tried to escape to the terrace but failed to do so because the door was locked.
“The bodies were severely burnt,” an officer at the Barrackpore commissionerate told The Times of India. “Their families identified them by finger rings, chains, wristwatches, and other accessories.”
One of the sector’s worst disasters in recent years occurred in December of 2019, when a conflagration at a handbag factory in Delhi killed 43 workers. Local media dubbed the blaze, which ripped through the four-story building in the old quarter of Anaj Mandi “the second deadliest fire incident in Delhi.” According to reports, as many as 100 workers were sleeping in the factory—which was operating illegally and did not have fire safety clearance—when the fire started at approximately 5 a.m. local time. Many of the victims, who were trapped by partially blocked exits and several sealed windows, perished from asphyxiation.
Just a few months later, a fire at the Nandan Denim factory in Ahmedabad killed seven workers. A preliminary survey of the factory revealed that the facility was inadequately equipped with exit doors, and had no fire safety measures in place. Most of the brands the company listed in its annual report as clients, including Target, VF Corp. and Zara, quickly distanced themselves from the manufacturer, claiming they had no preexisting relationship with it.
India doesn’t have a legally binding agreement along the lines of the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which holds brands responsible for workplace conditions at their supplier facilities. It was the scale of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which killed 1,134 workers—most of them young women—and injured thousands more, that prompted a commensurate response.
The question labor groups ask is how many have to die in India—and indeed elsewhere in the world—before a similar pact kicks into gear.
The Accord itself is under threat as negotiations for its extension (and expansion) continue to stall. Its expiration in August without a new deal would return Bangladesh’s garment industry to the same climate of self-regulation and voluntary monitoring that caused the Rana Plaza disaster, labor advocates say.
“The RMG Sustainability Council, which implements the safety work in Bangladesh, does not have the power to hold brands and retailers accountable to their promises,” Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, said in May. “Only an international legally binding agreement will ensure that brands can be held accountable in court for the promises they made to make factories safe. As brands hold the power in the supply chain, our efforts in Bangladesh for workplace safety can only be successful if brands can be compelled to stick to their word.”
And not just for Bangladesh.
“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, said at a press briefing in April. ”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.”