NEW DELHI - As Bangladesh struggles to improve its dismal industrial safety record after a massive building collapse last month, another garment industry disaster overnight has raised new cries for reform.
Shortly before midnight Wednesday, a fire swept through a garment factory in the capital Dhaka, killing eight people, including its managing director and a top police official. Initial reports suggested the fire in the 11-story building was caused by a short circuit on the second floor, which spread to the third and fourth floors where the factory was located.
Mahbubur Rahman, managing director of the Tung Hai Sweater factory, was reportedly meeting with friends including a senior police official around 11 p.m. when the blaze erupted, trapping them. According to doctors and local fire officials, most victims died of suffocation on the staircase.
The death toll might have been far higher if workers hadn't quit for the day. "The casualty was less as the factory was closed when the fire broke out," an unnamed company supervisor told local reporters. Photographs showed thick black smoke bellowing out of the building's second floor as firefighters worked to douse the fire, which blazed for about three hours.
Wednesday's disaster follows the collapse in late April of Dhaka's Rana Plaza, a massive building that housed five garment factories and a shopping complex. At least 900, mostly apparel workers, died in that disaster. In recent days, the government has promised to enact safety reforms, although some critics question its record on implementation.
Bangladesh is the world's second-largest clothing exporter after China. In recent months, a string of disasters has led to self-reflection and foreign calls for reform as Western apparel companies battle allegations that their production is built on exploitation.
Past reform campaigns and costly fire and safety regulations have been largely watered down or ignored, critics say. "We want to be hopeful that we'll see implementation and real change," said Tessel Pauli, an activist with the Netherlands-based group Clean Clothes Campaign. "But it's clear, given the unsafe record in the sector, I wonder if it will be enough really to affect the problem."