NEW DELHI, India — The death toll from the collapse of a Mumbai-area garment factory mounted on Friday, as rescue workers continued to sift through the wreckage.
So far, six people have died and around 40 have suffered serious injuries, following the collapse of a two-storey factory in Bhiwandi, an urbanized village in the Thane district, on the outskirts of India's financial capital.
The accident draws attention to safety issues in India's own garment manufacturing sector, even as industry heavyweights forecast a boom in orders from US and European brands fleeing Bangladesh due to the April collapse of a garment factory there.
Indian clothing makers are expecting as much as $3 billion in new business next year from brands like the GAP, American Eagle, Nike, and Abercrombie & Fitch thanks to better compliance with international standards, according to a recent report in India's Textile Magazine. That's a substantial boost to an industry that exported around $13 billion worth of ready made garments in fiscal 2012, compared with Bangladesh's $19 billion.
But is the Indian industry really safer?
“Indian factories are much safer,” D K Nair, secretary general of the Confederation of Indian Textile Industry, told GlobalPost.
“We have compliance norms from various buyers and organizations. We meet all of them. But the way the rains have been ravaging Mumbai, there was some impact in one of the factories.”
To be sure, Thursday's tragedy was small in comparison with the accident in Bangladesh, which killed more than a thousand workers. But it marked the third building collapse in the same Mumbai area of Thane this year.
As in the two previous cases in April and June, police filed charges against the building owner and an engineer involved with the project for violating construction codes.
Moreover, there are around 175 similar warehouses in the immediate vicinity, according to India's Daily News & Analysis newspaper, and there are at least 400 illegal buildings within the Thane corporation limits, according to the Hindu.
And while Indian garment industry officials say that compliance with customer requirements has improved working conditions and safety in large-scale local factories, as much as three-quarters of Indian-made garments are stitched in the tiny, unregulated sweatshops of the informal sector.
Occupational health and safety “is almost non-existent” at these outfits, Shyam Pingle puts it baldly in an article for the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India.
Not only are the thousands of tiny factories impossible to monitor from a practical standpoint, but a huge portion of them are exempt from health and safety regulations altogether.
“Only the manufacturing sector, mining, railways, dock workers and construction have laws for health and safety at work. But units employing less than 10 people are not covered,” Jagdish Patel, director of the People’s Training and Research Center, told GlobalPost.
“A very large work force has no legal protection,” the occupational safety expert said.
That's risky for global buyers, because work is frequently outsourced to the informal sector when orders exceed factory capacity or simply to cut costs, industry insiders say.
The small scale of those operations makes a major disaster like the one that hit Bangladesh virtually impossible — as no informal sector factory employs so many workers.
But thousands of separate, undocumented accidents happen every year, and hundreds of thousands of workers are exposed to dangerous substances and forced to work in unsafe conditions, labor activists say.