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Fires Wreck Garment Factories in South Africa, Philippines, Pakistan

Fires that continue to plague the global garment industry lend credence to calls by labor advocates for an Accord for Fire and Building Safety that covers not just Bangladesh but all textile-producing countries.

One conflagration broke out at a multi-story textile factory in the city center of Durban in South Africa Monday, causing severe damage that spilled over to a nearby building, though firefighters were able to evacuate all occupants and extinguish the flames before they grew out of control, local media reported. Robert Mckenzie, a spokesman for KZN Emergency Medical Services, said there were no reported injuries and that the cause of the fire is as yet unknown.

Over in the Philippines, a garment facility in Golden Mile Business Park in the Cavite province of Carmona burst into flames Tuesday, sending fire trucks from Bacoor, General Mariano Alvarez, General Trias, Silang and Biñan, Laguna to help put out the blaze.

A witness told the Manila Bulletin that the fire started on the second floor of the building, where textiles were being stored. No casualties were reported. While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the damage was estimated at 15 million Philippine pesos, or $313,500.

In Karachi in Pakistan two weeks ago, a fire that ripped through a garment factory in Orangi Town took seven fire tenders and six hours to extinguish. The only reported injuries belonged to one of the firefighters, who received burns on his hands while battling the flames. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

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Earlier in April, a fire gutted a garment factory near Bilal Chowrangi in Karachi’s Korangi Industrial Area. Firefighters said the two-story building’s narrow windows and entry points impeded efforts, but the blaze was ultimately extinguished with six fire tenders and eight water tankers after five hours. One official told The Tribune that boilers and liquified petroleum gas cylinders found at the site could have caught fire, leading to the conflagration.

Labor groups have been lobbying for a global agreement, much like the one that was forged in Bangladesh after the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, that would hold brands and retailers legally accountable for remediating workplace hazards at their garment suppliers, no matter where they are in the world.

“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.”

But even the original agreement is at risk of evaporating, labor advocates say. The original Accord, which expires at the end of the month, is in danger of rolling back the progress that made 1,600 of Bangladesh’s factories safer for nearly half of the country’s 4.1 million garment workers.

There also remains “unfinished business,” as the Clean Clothes Campaign, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network and the Worker Rights Consortium wrote in a report late last month. While it is “well-established” that the Accord has been the most successful safety program in the modern history of the apparel industry, they said, deadly safety risks remain in a “substantial number” of factories producing for Accord signatory brands.

According to a review of the Accord’s publicly available data, at least 12 leading brands covered by the agreement, including Bestseller, C&A, H&M and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp., are each sourcing from dozens of factories that have failed to install fire alarms, sprinkler systems and adequate emergency exits. All the brands, the report noted, are “fully aware” of the safety deficiencies at their factories in Bangladesh because they receive regular reports from the Accord.

H&M previously declined to discuss the matter in detail because negotiations over a new agreement are currently taking place. “We are now focused on securing the independence, resources and financing of this organization to secure workplace safety for all workers in Bangladesh,” Masarrat Quader, who is responsible for stakeholder and public affairs in Bangladesh, told Sourcing Journal in April. Bestseller, C&A and PVH Corp. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“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 organizations said. Without the “robust oversight” of the Accord, factories and brands would no longer have the financial incentive that motivates and allows factories to protect and continue to improve workplace safety.

“Moreover, 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,” they added.

Labor advocates worry that not only will less effective voluntary initiatives replace the binding contract in Bangladesh, but that the “failure” of brands to extend and expand the Accord will also stymie progress in other garment-producing countries.

“Recent mass fatality disasters at garment factories in countries like Morocco and Egypt demonstrate that workers around the world continue to face life-threatening safety risks,” the report said. “Advocates in garment-producing countries like Pakistan have long called for the Accord to be expanded to cover factories producing for brands in countries beyond Bangladesh.”