The garment industry may be reeling from the economic fallout of a global pandemic, but the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t diminished the massive safety failures endemic to its poorly regulated and notoriously opaque supply chains.
A new report published Tuesday, for instance, logged 66 reported apparel factory fires across 18 countries during the month of March alone, or an average of 2.1 per day.
The blazes resulted in four deaths and 50 injuries ranging from minor to serious, wrote Stephen Frost, an honorary institute fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School and co-founder of textile sustainability accelerator GoBlu.
Eight countries accounted for 54 fires, or roughly 82 percent of the total. India, which clocked in 20 incidents, was the worst impacted, followed by Bangladesh (8); Indonesia (7); Brazil, China, Egypt and Turkey (4 each) and Korea (3).
The four fatalities occurred at fires at a chemical company in India, at a button factory in India and a cotton factory in Pakistan, where workers later claimed the owner tried to hide the dead body from authorities.
Ten fires were responsible for the 50 injuries. The blaze that resulted in the most injuries was at a spinning mill in Myanmar, which saw 24 workers injured and five hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Turkey, Frost wrote, was the only country with more than one fire incident resulting in injuries—three were hurt at a shoe factory, one with critical burns, and five were hospitalized for smoke inhalation after a fire at a textile factory. The conflagration resulting in the most serious injuries was at the aforementioned button factory in India, where two workers died and eight suffered burns.
Causes for the fires ran the gamut, from a disgruntled employee who deliberately set a knitwear factory in Bangladesh ablaze after he was denied leave for coronavirus to mishandling of flammable materials. Most were unknown at the time of the reporting, however.
The pandemic, Frost noted, saw some producing countries shuttering factories in late March—India, for instance, went on lockdown on March 24—which led to a slight decline in fires in the final week of the month.
“Since India accounted for nearly one-third of all fires, and many of the country’s garment factories furloughed workers after [Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s] announcement, data for India may provide a useful indicator for any correlation between fire frequency and factory closures,” he said. “However, it is too soon, and there is not enough data, to say for certain a correlation exists between factory closures due to COVID-19 and fewer fires.”
Indeed, the lockdown has not seen an end to fires in India or in other countries such as Bangladesh and Turkey in the waning days of March.
Factories in India are also set to reopen in mid-April, if conditions permit. “Perhaps then we will be in a better position to say whether closures led to fewer fires,” Frost said.