A fire in Ideal Textile Mills in Bangladesh killed at least six workers this week, reportedly after sparks from welding set ablaze inflammable chemicals stored close by.
Soon, the blame game will begin. Perhaps there’ll be a government-ordered inquiry. Maybe someone will be sent to jail. Then it will be business as usual, and the six workers will join a growing list of those who died in factory tragedies there.
Earlier this year, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between clothing brands and unions, was renewed. The accord covers more than 1,600 garment factories. Under the revised agreement, the accord steering committee can opt in textile mills. This means the mills could also be subject to fire and building safety inspections, and management and workers could be trained on safety measures.
Instead of rallying around the Bangladesh Accord, the Bangladesh government has protested its extension. Unhelpfully, the government also announced it will begin a “new” initiative on fire and building safety.
The Bangladesh government authorities already inspect about 1,550 garment factories not covered by the accord or the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (another fire and building safety initiative led by American brands). In addition, government authorities inspect factories in sectors not covered by the accord or alliance, including textiles.
Over the past few years, the accord brands cut ties with 76 garment factories that failed to make their buildings safer. Similarly, the alliance brands terminated business with 158 garment factories. These factories are now the responsibility of government inspectors.
How have these terminated factories fared? Has the government ensured that the factories took steps to make the workplaces safer? Were any of these factories closed down as unsafe?
Who knows. In 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke with workers from four terminated factories. They had no knowledge about whether the government had inspected their factory and declared it safe. As one worker said, “We came to know it [the factory is not safe] only from some staff. We also asked the owner about it once. He only said that everything will be fine. ... We used to see fire drills here on the first Thursday of every month. But we haven’t seen this in the last three months – I don’t know why… I get worried when I think that our factory building is unsafe. But still I have to continue the job because I need it.”
If the government wants to be considered a credible labor inspectorate, it should at least publish reports on how factories terminated from the Accord and Alliance are faring. It’s not just an investment in transparency. It’s also a strategic investment in business.