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16 Workers Severely Burned in Garment Factory Explosion

More than a week after 16 workers were hospitalized with severe burns following a garment factory explosion in the central Bangladeshi city of Gazipur, answers are still scarce.

The cause of the blast at Cotton Club (BD) in Kashimpur, which occurred at 8:30 a.m. on May 1, was believed to have been a gas leak, local media reported. While the Mondol Group-owned facility was closed in observance of May Day, it wasn’t empty. The victims, who were admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital and Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery for treatment, included day laborers, electricians, security guards, a cleaner, a human resources officer, a line manager, a “sample man” and a sewing operator. All of them were working in or around the compressor room where the air ignited after a rogue spark, eyewitnesses and fire officials said. The factory typically employs 3,500 people.

Mondol Group did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment. Nor did the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the trade group to which it belongs.

The International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which covers Cotton Club (BD) through signatories such as Mango, Zara owner Inditex and Zalando, was similarly unresponsive. The timing of the accident was especially inauspicious: The fashion industry recently commemorated the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed 1,134 garment workers in Savar. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which the International Accord succeeded in 2021, was meant to spot fire, structural and boiler risks before they took a turn for the worse, preventing other Rana Plazas. It also turns 10 this month.

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But Paul Rigby, CEO of Nirapon, the safety group that replaced the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the Accord’s non-legally binding “rival,” after its expiration in 2018, said that it would be inappropriate to speculate about what happened “at this stage.” Nirapon, too, he confirmed, has Cotton Club (BD) under its purview through its member Kontoor Brands, better known as the parent company of Lee and Wrangler. He explained that there was a delay in getting information because Bangladesh was just coming out of Eid al-Fitr, one of the Muslim calendar’s holiest days.

“This is a tragic incident and our thoughts are with the people that have been injured and their families,” he said.

Zobaidur Rahman Soeb, head of media and communications at the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), which took over the practical functions of the Accord in Bangladesh in 2020, acknowledged that the factory is among those it covers. He noted, however, that the organization won’t be in a position of commenting until it completes its post-incident inspection.

Though Mango last refreshed its data in the Open Supply Hub in January, a spokesperson from the Spanish retailer told Sourcing Journal that it hasn’t worked with Cotton Club (BD) since 2021. Larisse Mac Donald, a representative from Zalando said that the e-tailer worked “indirectly” with the factory through one of its suppliers and that it is “deeply saddened” by the incident. Inditex and Kontoor Brands did not respond to requests for a statement.

Nazma Akter, founder and executive director of Awaj Foundation, a garment worker advocacy group based in Dhaka, said that it was deeply ironic that the accident happened on May Day, which is also known as International Workers’ Day.

“My heart is heavy and saddened that on a day like May Day, 16 workers were burnt and severely injured,” Akter told Sourcing Journal. “The international brands—those who are producing in the factory—must be held responsible. No worker should lose their life due to a lack of occupational health and safety.”

While questions abound about where audits and inspections lapsed, the needs of the victims involved are in no doubt, said Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of labor organizations and one of the Accord’s witness signatories. Some have burns covering one-third of their bodies. Others suffered damage to their respiratory tracts.

“These tragic events should be investigated immediately and thoroughly, resulting in a public report that can help understand how this incident could happen and how workers ended up in harm’s way,” she said. “The brands that sourced from this factory should seek out the workers and ensure that they receive all the medical treatments they need.”