(NEW YORK) — Another garment factory has burned in Bangladesh and killed seven more workers sewing clothes for Western customers, according to groups that monitor working conditions there.
It is the latest in a rash of deadly fires in the high-rise factories that have made Bangladesh the second largest exporter of clothing to the United States behind China. More than 700 workers have died in factory fires in the past five years. Two months ago, a ferocious blaze at a factory making clothes for major U.S. retailers killed an estimated 112 workers there.
This latest deadly fire occurred in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka at a factory called Smart Export Garments Ltd., which was believed to be manufacturing clothes for the Spanish parent company of the American retailer Zara, as well as several European brands, worker rights groups told ABC News overnight.
“After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, one of several groups advocating for a fire safety overhaul in the country.
“Brands still keep their audit results secret; they still walk away when it suits them; and trade unions are still marginalized, weakening workers’ ability to speak up when they are at risk,” Gearhart said.
The blaze occurred at a small factory in downtown Dhaka, where workers reported little in the way of safety precautions. A local fire official told The New York Times that the factory was located on the second floor of a building, above a bakery, and it lacked proper exits and fire prevention equipment. “We did not find fire extinguishers,” the official said. “We did not find any safety measures.”
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reported that the seven women who died were crushed to death as they raced to escape the fire. Two of the women killed were just teenagers, aged 15 and 16, according to the group.
The spate of deadly fires was the subject of a recent series of reports by ABC News about the dangerous conditions in Bangladesh, which has the lowest wages and among the worst working conditions in the world for garment manufacturers. The investigation found evidence of high-rise death traps, where poorly maintained electrical systems, locked exits, limited firefighting equipment, and mountains of combustible fabric provided a recipe for disaster.
After the initial reports, designer Tommy Hilfiger’s company, PVH Corp., became the first American clothing retailer to pledge to improve conditions in conjunction with workers’ groups.
Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said worker advocates in Bangladesh have been to the scene of the latest fire and have started to try and identify which retailers had hired the factory to make clothing there. He said they identified two labels belonging to Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer and the parent company of Zara.
Barbara Briggs, assistant director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, said her group also had photographs showing that at the time of the blaze, winter jackets were being sewn for the Inditex line called “Lefties,” a European label.
Messages left for Inditex officials have not been answered. The company posts information on its website about its efforts to insure the safety of the workers making its clothing. It says the company “conducts technical assistance visits to manufacturing facilities,” and it employs a team of 40 independent experts to audit the facilities that make its labels, “which in 2012 alone resulted in more than 600 technical assistance visits to suppliers worldwide.”
Nova and other advocates for improved safety conditions said the latest fire indicates that what little efforts have been made by Western brands to date are not working.
“How many more workers have to die before … big retailers finally commit to pay for the reforms that are needed to make the industry in Bangladesh safe?” Nova said.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Susan Scutti, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN