A 62-year-old woman died Wednesday after a fire broke out at several garment facilities in India’s city of Mumbai, local media has reported.
The conflagration at the Ashok Mills compound, which erupted around noon, ripped through at least four units located on the ground floors of two adjacent two-story buildings. Four fire engines, three jumbo tankers and two fire bikes arrived on the scene. As they fought the flames, they found Ushe Londe trapped in a bathroom. She was rushed to Sion hospital where she was declared dead on arrival.
The day before, a footwear warehouse in the Topsia area of Kolkata caught on fire, requiring 12 fire tenders to quell the blaze, although no injuries were reported. Over in Mathura in the state of Uttar Pradesh, an inferno gutted the three-story Mahesh Garments showroom, sending thousands of dollars worth of goods up in smoke. No one was hurt, however.
The accidents arrive just as calls for an expansion of the former Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh coalesced in an agreement for neighboring Pakistan, the site of a 2012 fire that killed more than 250 garment workers and seriously injured 55. It marks the first time the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment Industry will hold fashion brands legally liable for factory conditions outside of Bangladesh.
Bestseller, C&A, H&M Group, Otto Group, Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. and Zara owner Inditex revealed last week that they would be joining KiK and Tchibo in signing the so-called Pakistan Accord. It’s a start, labor campaigners say, but nowhere near enough, especially with the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse approaching.
“Factory fires in death trap factories which cut corners and costs where they can remain far too common in the garment industry and continue to lead to injury and death,” Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, told Sourcing Journal. “This is why it is so important that after the Rana Plaza collapse the step was taken toward a safety program that holds brands accountable for ensuring that the factories in their supply chain are made safe and that factory owners have the means and incentive to do so. It is paramount that this process continues and that workers in other countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Morocco will not have to wait another 10 years before they will be protected.”
India, the world’s sixth-largest exporter of clothing, has a similar program called the Life and Building Safety (LABS) Initiative. Rolled out by IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative in 2019, it’s designed to mitigate preventable structural, fire and electrical safety risks in garment facilities using a framework based on the International Building Code and National Building Code of India. The program, which also maintains a presence in Vietnam and most recently in Cambodia, covers some 778,000 workers. Companies that have signed on include Bestseller, Gap Inc., The North Face parent VF Corp and Walmart. (Of these, only Bestseller has joined the International Accord.)
But Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, previously told Sourcing Journal that voluntary initiatives like LABS are “grossly inadequate.”
“In order to properly protect workers, safety agreements need to be legally binding so brands can be held financially and legally responsible for safety problems that occur within their factories,” she said. They must also be “driven by the needs of workers” through the “credible involvement” of local unions and worker organizations, especially when it comes to oversight and governance. Otherwise, she said, they merely serve as a “mechanism for brands to pat themselves on the back, while leaving their workers still at risk.”
Factory fires don’t only create human tolls, they present business risks as well. In January, Resilinc named factory fires the No. 1 supply chain disruption for the fourth consecutive year. 2022 saw the supply chain mapping and risk monitoring firm’s EventWatchAI monitoring platform log the highest number of such occurrences in a single year, with 3,609 alerts worldwide—an 85 percent year-over-year spike.
Resilinc said that the “biggest driver” of factory fires are gaps in regulatory and process execution. A shortage of skilled labor in warehouses, a state of affairs that was exacerbated by the pandemic, also didn’t help. Nor did component shortages and adverse weather conditions such as extreme heat. Half of all fires started inside the facility, with faulty equipment and machinery being the most common cause. Flammable liquids and gasses were their second-highest.
“That is what we looked at: Why are there so many factories?” said Bindiya Vakil, founder and CEO of Resilinc. “Because people are not doing the preventive maintenance. Factories need to be kept clean, free of debris near the hot work areas. There needs to be constant inspection of the electrical systems and machinery and things like that. This is one of those things that’s the outcome of Covid.”
India’s garment industry, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s industrial production and employs more than 45 million people, exported $15.3 billion worth of apparel from January to November 2022, according to trade data, an 11 percent year-over-year growth.