As a massive blast shook the neighborhood at a container freight station in Shitakunda last week, less than 15 miles from the Chittagong port in southeast Bangladesh, the following inferno killed at least 49 people and injured more than 200. Windows shattered for miles around, and the spreading explosions from containers included those readying to carry garment orders to their global destinations.
The cause of the fire at BM Container Depot in the Kadamrasul area in Sitakunda Upazila in Chittagong has yet to be determined. The area held hydrogen peroxide, which although not flammable in and of itself, breaks down into oxygen and heat that can stoke combustion, fire service chief Brigadier General Main Uddin told reporters.
Fire officials said they had not been informed that the chemical was being housed at the depot. “We could not control the fire because of the existence of this chemical,” Uddin said. A case has been filed against eight people who were in charge of the depot, according to Sitakunda police.
Industry sources said that more than $100 million worth of goods were damaged, including those destined for H&M and Target. Roughly 90 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports, which surpassed $35 billion in 2021, transit through the Chittagong port.
“H&M Group is deeply sorry to hear about the terrible accident and our thoughts go to those affected and their families,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We can confirm that we will pay our suppliers for all goods according to our contractual agreements. We will as always stand by our responsible purchasing practices.”
Target did not respond to a request for comment.
In the aftermath, Shahidullah Azam, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), affirmed the industry continued to function and that “exports are moving along without any problem. “We have 19 inland container depots, and one is affected,” he said.
The Bangladesh government has launched an investigation into the incident. Rear Admiral M. Shahjahan, chairman of the Bangladesh Chittagong Port Authority said that the fire took place at a private dock unaffiliated with the government. “It is a joint venture company, owned 49 percent by a Dutch company and 51 percent by a Bangladesh private company,” he said. The depot, which spans 21 acres of land, was set up in May 2011.
“It’s a very chaotic situation right now,” Miran Ali, vice president of the BGMEA, told Sourcing Journal. “Our primary concern is obviously to get treatment for the people who were injured. And obviously, the people who died during this accident, the company has already promised to take full responsibility financially for their compensation.”
Smart Group, the depot’s Bangaldeshi partner, has promised to pay 1 million Bangladeshi taka ($10,753) for every death. For those who were seriously injured, maimed or lost organs, the company said it will pay 600,000 taka ($6,452). Surviving children will also receive the equivalent of their deceased parent’s salary until they become adults, it said.
Ali, who is also managing director of the Bitopi Group, has 17 containers, housing some 200,000 units for various customers, on the line. He could potentially lose $800,000 worth of clothing, he said.
The insurance liability will depend on where the destruction of property took place. “If the goods were handed over, then the liability is going to be on the buyer,” Ali said. “And if the goods were still outside—but I don’t think anything outside got destroyed, because then the trucks would have just driven away—[then it would be on the supplier.]”
Earlier this month, a group of Bangladeshi employers, including the BGMEA, signed the so-called Geneva Declaration with the International Labour Organization to set up an employment injury scheme for the country.
“And I believe that this is now going to be further leverage or encouragement for us to expand these insurance coverage schemes across the other sectors as well,” Ali said.
The question that has come up repeatedly over the past 10 years in Bangladesh has been one of industrial safety in the country. Spawned by the Tazreen Fashion fire in 2011 when more than 100 workers died, and exacerbated after the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 when more than 1,100 workers were killed, the movement led to a ripple effect of actions and safety checks.
The issue of preparedness has also come up again. Police officials said that more than 50 of those injured were rescue workers.
It took four days to get the fires under control, with reports noting that fire extinguishers were in short supply.
The issue has taken on greater importance as Bangladesh continues to strengthen its position as a garment exporter, the second biggest in the world after China, with manufacturers saying that they have focused on changing for the better and working on their factories over the past nine years to improve building and fire safety. This has been monitored and kept up with inspections by a compendium of Western brands and retailers, including the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (now known as the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (now succeeded by Nirapon).
The issue of capacity continuing to expand across industries appears to be increasingly in focus, in terms of equipment, but also as it pertains to worker safety and the credibility of the workplace.
“While significant progress has been made in the garment sector, more needs to be done in all the other industries,” Iqbal M. Hussain, managing director and acting chief safety officer, Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), said. “The blast continues to shine a spotlight on the safety record in Bangladesh industries.”
While investigations into the cause of the blast are underway, Bangladesh home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said justice would find its way to punish those responsible.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on June 14, 2022, with a statement from H&M.