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Fire Kills 12 Garment Workers at India Cotton Plant

A cotton plant in western India was rocked by tragedy on Wednesday.

An explosion originating in a warehouse storing chemicals sparked a large fire at the factory, killing a dozen workers. According to the Associated Press, National Disaster Response Force spokesman Krishan Kumar reported that 12 bodies were recovered from the facility in the city of Ahmedabad.

Television news channels showed images of workers fleeing the blast, which was met by 24 fire engines and more than 50 firefighters. First responders contained the blaze after a battle that lasted “several hours,” AP reported, with a portion of the warehouse ultimately collapsing.

Nearby structures were also damaged, according to reports from a New Delhi news channel. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “anguished by the loss of lives due to the fire in the warehouse in Ahmedabad.”

This latest disaster further underscores an urgent need for safety reforms in the country’s garment sector, which has suffered manifold tragedies in recent years. In February, a fire at an Ahmedabad garment label factory killed three workers. Weeks earlier, seven workers died in a conflagration at a nearby facility owned by Nandam Denim.

The company, which has characterized itself as India’s largest integrated denim fabric maker, touted manufacturing relationships with global brands like Zara, Primark and Target. Those partners subsequently claimed to have no association with the supplier.

A man walks on the debris at the site of fire at a factory in an industrial area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
A man walks on the debris at the site of fire at a factory in an industrial area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

Late last year, a deadly inferno ripped through a handbag factory in the northeast city of Delhi. More than 40 workers lost their lives, and the December incident was described by media as the city’s second-deadliest fire.

Reports revealed that as many as 100 workers had been asleep at the illegally operated factory, which had not been cleared for fire safety, when the fire began in the early morning hours. While the source was not confirmed, officials believe that a short-circuit made contact with some combustible materials nearby, setting the building ablaze. Sealed windows and blocked exits trapped workers inside, and a deputy chief fire officer said asphyxiation was determined as the leading cause of death.

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The incident led to rounds of finger-pointing and blame-shifting on the part of city officials and political parties, who cited issues like the location of the factory and its proximity to power lines as issues that could have contributed to the factory’s risk for fire damage.

But labor rights groups at the time decried the city’s lax enforcement of fire and building safety protocols, fingering Delhi’s government for systemic lapses in responsibility.

“These unnecessary deaths and other recent tragic building incidents show the urgent need for transparent and credible enforcement of fire and building safety regulations throughout India’s industrial sector,” the Clean Clothes Campaign, a consortium of groups lobbying for the rights of garment workers, wrote in a statement at the time.


People stand at the site of fire at a factory in an industrial area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
People stand at the site of fire at a factory in an industrial area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

The group added that “existing inspection systems, including the corporate social auditing firms used by multinationals to check on their supplier factories, have thus far failed to structurally improve factory safety across the country.”

Nearly one year later, these third-party certification firms, which brands and retailers have increasingly relied upon to legitimize their supply chains in the eyes of increasingly savvy and conscious shoppers, appear to be facing the same efficacy issues.

And brands appear to have little faith in the integrity of their supply chains, even as they seek out designations for compliance. Amid calls for transparency, few are willing to map out their relationships beyond providing the names of companies manufacturing their finished goods, leaving a whole host of suppliers unaccounted for.

A recent study from grassroots initiative Fashion Revolution, which compiled a list of supplier relationships by brand in the Indian textile production hub of Tamil Nadu, revealed that major companies are cagey about divulging downstream suppliers, where many of these safety issues have occurred.

Just 23 out of 62 labels surveyed reported partial lists of processing facilities involved in the printing, dyeing, laundering and embroidery of their goods. Only 18 disclosed a selection of their textile producers, from knitters and spinners to weavers. Forty-six companies volunteered only Tier 1 manufacturer associations, obfuscating deeper visibility into their supply chains.