by Elizabeth Grossman

In an incident that brings to mind the Triangle factory fire that took place in New York almost 100 years ago, the fire that broke out on December 14th on the 9th and 10th floors of the building housing the Ha-meem Group’s “That’s It Sportswear” factory in the Ashalia industrial district outside Dhaka, Bangladesh killed at least two dozen workers, and injured scores more. Electrical short-circuiting is a primary cause being investigated for the fire that occurred Tuesday while a reported 200 to 300 of the factory’s approximately 5,000 or more workers were on lunch break in the factory canteen. According to one report, the fire was not fully extinguished until midday Wednesday.

The Ha-meem Group is one of Bangladesh’s largest garment manufacturers. This particular factory produces clothing for a variety of European and U.S. companies; the International Labor Rights Forum has compiled a list of its customers, which includes the Gap, JC Penney, OshKosh, Phillips Van Heusen (company brands include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Izod, Kenneth Cole, DKNY, and Timberland), Abercrombie, and the VF Corporation (company brands include Wrangler, Lee, The North Face, and Lucy). It is not yet clear exactly what merchandise was being produced here.

One account of the fire describes thick smoke that obscured exits and crowds of workers rushing to indoor stairs. Other accounts describe workers who leapt to injury or death from windows. Problems using fire extinguishers because of lack of water and lack of worker training in how to use them were also reported.

According to the Bangladesh Daily Star, “Witnesses said four out of seven exit staircases were closed. Desperate to flee the heat and smoke, some workers jumped off the windows, while some fell trying to get to the ground using rolls of cloth. Many others were injured hurtling down the stairs.” The Associated Press also reports a locked stairwell gate that trapped people inside the factory. One survivor reported emergency exits and “exits for women” closed.

Substandard wiring or sabotage?
Electrical wiring in Bangladeshi factories is often substandard and fires are not uncommon, Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network coordinator Garrett Brown told me in a phone call yesterday. In February of this year, fire at another Bangladesh garment factory killed 22 people and injured dozens more. The Clean Clothes Campaign website has links to articles about numerous deadly garment factory accidents in the past ten years.

But the on-line news service BDnews24.com reports that “Delwar Hossain, deputy managing director of Ha-Mim [sic] Group, on Wednesday told reporters that the fire had not originated from any electric short-circuit. “Someone deliberately did it.” A Ha-meem factory was set on fire during labor protests here in June 2009.

Wages in Bangladesh are some of the lowest in the world. Many garment workers earn less than $1/day and live well below the local poverty line. This year has been one of labor unrest turned violent.

This past weekend, thousands of garment workers blocked streets and factories around Dhaka in protests over companies’ failure to implement a new minimum wage that would raise monthly pay to at least $43. Three people were reported killed and scores injured in the demonstrations. In July after three weeks of violent protest the Bangladesh government agreed to nearly double the monthly wage for workers in the export garment industry, an increase that was to take effect in November 2010. Garments are Bangladesh’s largest export and the country’s second largest employment sector; these exports have nearly doubled in the past five years.

The limits of Corporate Social Responsibility policies
Companies like the Gap that contract with Ha-meem have extensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies, but what many American consumers don’t know is that the U.S. companies do not control actual workplace safety. That falls to the local company that pays the workers. Both Trina Tocco, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), and Garrett Brown described Bangladesh factory inspections as completely inadequate.

While U.S. company CSR policies embrace transparency and many list the countries where manufacturing takes place, names of these companies are not easy obtain. For example, while the Ha-meem Group lists U.S. buyers on its Facebook page (the company website is currently inaccessible), none of the U.S. companies list Ha-meem as a supplier. Yesterday I contacted several of the companies listed on Ha-meen Group’s Facebook page – Gap, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Target, and Wal-Mart – and only two responded by close-of-business. JC Penney said they sourced from this factory; Wal-Mart said they did not. ILRF, the Worker Rights Consortium, and other news sources confirmed the other U.S. buyers.

“Buyers are in Bangladesh because it’s crazy cheap,” said Trina Tocco. “Any buyer that thinks otherwise is fooling themselves and consumers. This is completely unacceptable” said Tocco of yesterday’s fire. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.