Why South Asian Factories Can Be Death Traps


Photo: Flickr / Ahron de Leeuw

Though the reasons leading to fire at a textile factory in Bangladesh are being investigated as we speak, blazes like the one in Dhaka on Saturday, which killed at least 120 in a garment factory, are sadly all too frequent occurrences around south Asia.In September, in one of the worst incidents of its kind, 289 people died in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi. The same month, 40 were killed in a fire at a fireworks factory in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Several factors combine to make death traps of factories across south Asia. In many instances, exits have been padlocked, basements used as store rooms for highly flammable raw materials and no fire escapes installed, while smoke alarms or sprinkler systems are unheard of.

Survivors often describe the desperate crush as hundreds rush into narrow corridors filled with clouds of toxic smoke.

Fire is a constant hazard in the grossly overcrowded poor neighbourhoods of all emerging world cities.

At least 11 people, all women and children, died in a blaze in one of Dhaka’s biggest slum communities last week, thought to have started in a rickshaw mechanic’s workshop.

There is little proper zoning so industry is sited in the middle of residential areas, often slums which house the workers at the factories. More than 120 people were killed in June 2010 when a fire destroyed six buildings – including a factory — in the Bangladeshi capital . A possible cause was cooking for a wedding.

Then there is the lack of preparedness. Fire services in south Asia are poorly equipped and badly trained, and public awareness is limited. “The workers are not trained to use extinguishers. The fire drills performed at the factories are limited to attaining only the benchmark of compliance and audits,” said Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS).

Wafer-thin profit margins exacerbate the problem too. After the fire in Karachi, Pakistani manufacturers blamed overseas competition, including from Bangladesh, for the cost-cutting that had contributed to the tragedy there.

Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation, said mid-level management of the garment factories are mostly concerned with how many clothes can be produced and forget the safety issues.

Then there is corruption, endemic in all south Asian nations, which means government inspectors are easily paid off. And the ease of hiring and firing, and mobility of the workforce, means “no employee-employer relationship”, according to Subhash Bhatnagar of the Delhi-based Unorganised Workers Association. “There is no sense of safeguarding their wellbeing,” he said.

The huge construction industry in these booming economies is another major problem. Bhatnagar estimates that hundreds die every year in Delhi alone, and thousands across the rest of India in accidents on work sites.

The situation is no better in Bangladesh. At least four workers died on Saturday when a bridge under construction in Chittagong collapsed.

This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.