Global activists fight to end factory fires in Bangladesh garment industry

Factory worker Bangladeshi Shahinur looks though the devastation after a fire swept though the garment factory in Dhaka on January 27, 2013. At least seven female workers were killed after a blaze swept through a small garment factory in the Bangladeshi capital, police and fire officials said.

A series of deadly fires in Bangladesh garment factories have moved international labor rights groups to call upon global retailers to end the terrible epidemic, Reuters reports.

The demands of the labor rights groups took on new urgency after seven women were killed and five injured on Saturday at Smart Export Garments Ltd. in Dhaka. This is the second fatal fire reported from Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry over the past several months.

The cause of the blaze remains unknown; but local fire officials report to the New York Times that the factory building lacked proper fire prevention equipment and exits. According to the Associated Press, authorities are investigating allegations that the emergency exit was locked, after workers report that they could not escape through the building gates.

Three leading labor rights groups – the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) – issued a joint statement on Sunday, requesting that retailers and brands sign a Fire and Building Safety Agreement with Bangladesh. The agreement will ensure adequate safety measures for garment workers, says the ILRF.

More from GlobalPost: Bangladesh government navigates increased scrutiny on labor rights

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), declares that the tragedy is as much a product of negligence as the fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd in November.

"After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed," she said in a Sunday statement. “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.”

A report released last week by the ILRF reveals that 60 percent of Bangladesh’s garment factories lack adequate fire safety equipment. Over 1,000 workers have died since 1900 from factory fires and other unsafe workplace incidents. Over 700 have died since 2005. Despite the rise in death toll, US apparel companies increase their orders. Bangladesh – famous for having the lowest wages and worst working conditions of any garment-producing country – has emerged as the number-two garment exporter in the world, after China.

But the recent surge in global media attention is keeping advocates optimistic for change in the industry.

More from GlobalPost: US retailers eye safety standards after deadly Bangladesh fire

GlobalPost’s Jennifer Matson reported in November that Wal-mart was forced to cut ties with one of its suppliers "after its garments were found in debris from the fire at Bangladesh's Tazreen Fashions factory." According to the Associated Press, the corporation recently announced an adopted policy that demands stricter contracting rules and safety oversight for workers.

On Sunday the director of the Worker Rights Consortium, Scott Nova, told ABC news that he identified two labels at the Smart Export factory as belonging to Inditex - the leading retailer in global fashion.

A spokesman for Inditex later informed Reuters that the retailer had "suspended links with Spanish supplier Wonnover and its sub-contractor Centex as a precautionary measure."

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of labor practices in Bangladesh and around the world, check out our Special Report "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights."

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