February 3, 2016 -- Three years after the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, a massive fire broke out in a similar sweater factory renewing concerns over the working conditions of many fast fashion factories.
Four workers were confirmed dead at the time of this publication after the fire broke out early this morning. Because of the hour, most of the factory’s 6,000 workers had not arrived to work preventing tragedy on a much deeper scale.
The fire broke out on the 7th floor at the Matrix Sweaters factory in Gazipur at around 7.30 am on February 3. It took firefighters four hours to extinguish the flames in the largely empty factory. Firefighters told the Bangladesh newspaper BDNews24 that poisonous gases were released when the sweaters, which were made of acrylic and synthetic material, began to burn.
Major safety issues in the factory, which supplies Western retailers such as H&M and J.C.Penny, were reported in a 2014 audit, but little was done to fix the problems.
For years Bangladesh, one of the world’s top garment exporters, has been criticized for systemic human rights violations such as poverty pay, hazardous working conditions and long hours. After the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which killed 1,100 workers, and a fire in a Tazreen Fashion factory, which killed 119 people, the U.S.-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was formed to oversee inspections and initiatives to improve factory safety. Critics, however, say the renovations haven’t taken place quickly enough.
The Alliance recently reported the Matrix Sweater factory as being “on track”.
“It is astonishing that the alliance has Matrix Sweaters rated as ‘on track’ with safety renovations,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said. “This factory has missed dozens of deadlines to eliminate fire hazards and make the structure safe, with 72 different hazards still uncorrected almost two years after inspection. Just how dangerous does a factory have to be to earn criticism from the alliance?”
“We are extremely relieved that this fire hasn’t resulted in another tragedy on the scale of the Tazreen factory fire of 2012,” Sam Maher, a coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, said. “However, this is more [due] to luck than anything else.”
With the release of The True Cost, a documentary highlighting the dark side of the fast fashion industry, and formation of activist groups such as Labour Behind the Label, many consumers are beginning to questions who made their clothes. The global fashion industry is a $3 trillion a year industry, yet garment workers, 80% of them women, generally work for poverty pay and in unsafe working environments.
In response to such abuses, the “Ethical Fashion” or “Fair Trade Fashion” fashion segment is growing. Several companies such as Esperanza Market, Ways of Change, Krochet Kids and Ten Thousand Villages incorporate fair labor practices into their business plans.
For consumers wanting to make informed choices, there are several tools consumers can use to ensure their they are purchasing ethically produced clothing. The Higg Index is a tool that measures the social performance of apparent products. Free2Woek uses a barcode scanner to provide users data on a brand’s responses to forced and child labor practices and the Fair Trace Tool provides consumers with a transparent view of where, and under what conditions, clothes were made.