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(New York)  – Seven deaths at an October fire in a fabric mill in Bangladesh could have been prevented, Human Rights Watch said today. In interviews, workers from the Aswad Composite Mills told Human Rights Watch that the fire hydrant system at the plant did not work properly, allowing the flames to spread quickly.

The fire is the latest in a series of garment-manufacturing catastrophes that have killed more than a thousand workers in the last year alone, and is a sign that foreign retailers need to take all reasonable steps to ensure all factories involved in their garment supply chain are safe places to work. 

Seven people died in the fire at Aswad Composite Mills on October 8. Aswad supplied fabric for other Bangladeshi factories to turn into garments for North American and European clients such as Walmart, Gap, H&M and Carrefour. The Bangladesh government and one of the retailers, Primark, said they had uncovered safety violations at the factory prior to the fire but no action was taken. Other companies said they had not inspected Aswad because they did not have a direct relationship with it.

“Bangladeshi workers continue to die while making cheap clothes for Western brands,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director. “Though the retailers have belatedly promised to help improve safety conditions in the factories making their garments, they need to commit to end safety violations throughout their supply chains or the whole process will be fatally flawed.”

In the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers in April 2013, most foreign retailers operating in Bangladesh have pledged to help improve the fire and building safety standards of hundreds of factories that directly make their clothes. But their commitments do not extend to subcontractors and suppliers like Aswad that play a major part in the supply chain.

The results of an official investigation into the fire have not yet been released, but two workers said that they saw the fire begin when the chimney of a drying machine overheated. Several workers and the company’s managing director told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of workers were safely evacuated, while seven men died later fighting the flames. It took the fire brigade two and a half hours to arrive, they said. In total, Human Rights Watch interviewed eight employees of the factory, three of whom were in the room where the fire began. Some others were not willing to describe what happened because they said they were afraid of losing their jobs.

Workers tried to put out fire

One worker involved in trying to put out the fire said that there was hardly any water in the hose he tried to use. The man, who said he had not received fire training said, “I think those people died because there was such a small amount of water. In fact you can say there was no water because it only just dripped out of the hose pipe when we switched it on for the second time.”

A second worker said that he saw the flames spread quickly from the chimney across the floor of the factory, which was “scattered with threads, clothes, machines, plus dying chemicals and fabrics.”

“I started to shout ‘fire, fire’ and workers around me started to organize the hose pipe to put water on to the fire,” the worker said. “We put some water on to it but then we saw there was not enough water to stop the fire which was getting bigger and coming towards us.”

A third worker said, “I heard my colleagues shouting about a fire, so I rushed to the spot. I saw them trying to pour water on the fire, but it was getting bigger and there was no water. I got really frightened and just escaped without looking back.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke to five garment mill workers who said they attended a meeting the following day where they were told by a senior manager not to tell outsiders that the factory had run out of water. One man explained, “He said that your bonuses and wages will be paid on time, but do not leak the information about what actually happened, do not leak the fact that there was no water, otherwise we will not open the factory again.”

Nafiz Sikder, managing director of Palmal group which owns Aswad Mills, denied that such a meeting ever happened. He also said that while there might have been a gap in the water supply for one or two minutes while a generator was switched on, the hydrant system otherwise worked well, a claim supported by one of the workers Human Rights Watch interviewed.

“Our hydrant system was used for 12 hours as the primary system to fight the fire. The final report will have to come from the fire department, but the water pressure was fine. The hydrant system is not mandated by law but we have gone beyond it to put such a system in place,” Sikder told Human Rights Watch. He said that every year the factory had received factory and fire licenses, although he admitted that the government had filed charges against the company after a recent inspection uncovered various safety violations.

According to the newspaper the New Age, the inspection took place just prior to the fire. It quoted Labor Secretary Mikail Shiper as saying that, “The number of exhaust fans and (the) cooling system of (the) machine room was not sufficient and (the) walkway in the factory was very narrow.” Sikder described the charges as “fabricated.”

Foreign retailers named in company records

According to documents found in the burnt-out factory and copied, Aswad’s customers over the past twelve months included Walmart, Gap, American Eagle, H&M, Primark, Asda, NEXT, Carrefour, Lacoste, Just Jeans, Target (Australia) and Woolworths (Australia). At least one of them, Primark, had inspected the factory prior to the fire and said it had uncovered violations of its code of conduct. But other companies said they had not visited because they did not have a direct relationship with the firm.

Asda, a British chain owned by Walmart, said that it was now considering changing this policy. “Given the situation in Bangladesh, we, along with Walmart, believe the Government of Bangladesh and the industry should consider whether to extend factory safety programs to this next level of production,” the retailer said in a statement on October 9. British retailer, NEXT, said in a statement on the same day that once “the cause is known, as routine NEXT will review its procedures, including the extent to which it needs to look further down the supply chain – particularly in high risk areas such as Bangladesh.” Gap also said the accident underscores why “more needs to be done to address building and fire safety issues in Bangladesh.”

Gap and Walmart are among a group of 23 North American companies that formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. More than 101 firms, most of them based in Europe, signed up to the separate Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Importantly, unlike the Alliance, the Accord is a legally binding agreement so firms are obliged to do something about safety violations where they are uncovered.

On October 10, the Accord stated that although Aswad Composite Mills was not covered under its agreement, the Accord’s members had “agreed to work within the spirit of the Accord in providing necessary support to the victims and their families and to avoid a future tragic event given the urgent need on the ground.”
At least one of the companies whose names were found in Aswad’s order books, Just Jeans of Australia, has not signed up to either agreement. Woolworths joined the Accord after the fire occurred.

“It is encouraging that more retailers are finally beginning to accept the principle that they have responsibilities up and down the supply chain in Bangladesh,” Adams said. “But it is vitally important they now follow this up with action on the ground, so that all factories involved in making their clothes are safe places to work.”

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