An examination of the ever-present threat of fire in the lives of the working class after yet another garment factory fire kills 21 workers - while slum fires also have a devastating affect...
On Thursday 25th February 21 workers died in a fire at the Garib and Garib sweater factory in the southern district of Gazipur, burnt to death or choking on smoke. The fire started at 8.45pm, probably as an electrical short-circuit on the second floor of the seven-storey building, and quickly spread to other floors containing inflammable materials. A large stock of synthetic acrylic sweaters burned and gave off a thick toxic smoke. (Acrylic fibres contain the polycrylonitrile group of vinyl compounds, which may be carcinogenic.) At least 20 other workers were injured in the blaze, many with serious burns. As is usual in garment factories, the exit doors were kept locked by the bosses to prevent theft, as were internal doors;
‘After completion of our night-duty the factory authorities usually lock all the doors, so we couldn’t flee even after hearing the repeated fire alarm,’ said Hanufa Banu, a worker of the sewing section. (New Age, Feb 27 2010)
The fire hoses on each floor were declared useless by firemen who had tried to use them;
Fire-fighting equipment at the Garib & Garib sweater factory were of no use, said a fire official at Gazipur.
Abu Zafar Ahmed, Gazipur fire station officer said that there was no water in the factory's reserve tank.
"Although there were hosepipes on every floor, they were virtually useless." (bdnews24.com Feb 26th, 2010)
Health & Safety regulation are routinely ignored by management and are hardly enforced by government (many politicians have business interests in the industry); factory fires break out on a bi-monthly basis. Most are smaller incidents with regular injuries but fewer deaths, but over 240 workers have died in major fires since 1990;
Major RMG Fires Since '90
62 killed at KTS Garments, Chittagong 2006
32 killed at Saraka Garments, Dhaka 1990
24 killed at Shanghai Apparels, Dhaka 1997
23 killed at Macro Sweater, Dhaka 2000
23 killed at Chowdhury Knitwear, Narsingdi 2004
23 killed at Shan Knitting, Narayanganj 2005
22 killed at Lusaka Garments, Dhaka 1996
20 killed at Jahanara Fashion, Narayanganj 1997
12 killed at Globe Knitting, Dhaka 2000
Sources- National Garments Workers Federation and newspapers
(Daily Star - Feb 27, 2010)
It was only by luck that last week's fire did not cause far more deaths. After a fire in the same factory last August, when a fireman was killed, the factory management ignored safety concerns and declined to keep water in the hydrant supplying the fire hoses - rendering them useless.
The notices served on the owners to set up hydrant points, build underground reservoirs with a capacity of one lakh gallon of water, and set up a pump with a capacity of lifting 300 to 350 litre of water, were never followed. Nor were smoke and heat detectors installed. Factory operation rules make it mandatory for each factory to have two staircases, one for regular use and the other for emergency exit. (Daily Star - 6 March, 2010)
Heavy grill windows with sealed glass panes prevented smoke escaping. None of the 11 guards on duty knew how to operate the fire extinguishers and hydrants. On realising the extent of the fire the security personnel fled the building ... taking with them the keys and so leaving the main gate locked, hindering escape routes for others. Fire fighters had to cut grills off second floor windows to rescue some workers. Emergency exits inside were blocked by piles of stock and material and there were no fire escapes outside.
The blaze broke out during the night shift, after the majority of workers had left - one can only imagine the extent of casualties if it had occurred when perhaps most of the 3,500 workforce had been present, such as at a shift changeover. But conditions at this factory are the norm in the industry; a post-fire inspection of numerous garment factories has found 60% of the country's 4,500 factories have inadequate firefighting equipment. Many factories have no battery-powered emergency lighting - so when a fire occurs the whole building soon falls into darkness, intensifying the chaos and panic of those trapped inside. For the bosses (and for the state, who decline to enforce such health and safety regulations) the costs of adequate health & safety precautions are weighed up against the pursuit of profit - and workers' lives are measured as more expendable than the costs of funding adequate protection from fire (or the numerous other health risks when working in the factories, such as excessive noise, dust, eyestrain, assaults by management etc). Death is a way of life in this industry.
As is usual after such events, committees have been formed to investigate. They proceed slowly and will eventually deliver recommendations; some may be implemented. But without a desire for enforcement all this remains a show of concern that fools no one and that attempts only to dissipate anger. While workers' health & safety is allowed to remain such a low priority, little will change. The factory supplied major European and North American retailers, including Sweden’s H&M, Italy’s Terenora, Spain’s Zemman and Canada’s Mark’s Work Wearhouse; government and industry-sanctioned investigations help reassure global buyers that the needs of their 'ethical' corporate image are being given priority for the short time the media spotlight is on the issue.
Compensation is sometimes paid, but for the family dependents of victims the consequences are often devastating - apart from emotional damage, the loss of the breadwinner's earning capacity can send a poor family into total destitution. Many garment workers will have experience of fires in the workplace, many will have sustained injuries, lost friends and workmates to them - and all know that this is due purely to bosses' greed and negligence. The fairly regular use of fire by garment workers in their struggles against their employers must be understood within this context. Garment workers have often burned down factories in retaliation for non-payment of wages, lockouts or management brutality.(1) Many garment workers are malnutritious due to low income, living hand to mouth. Arson is a readily available means of hurting the bosses and depriving them of something when they refuse to pay; and there is certainly a poetic justice in the fact that those forced to live with a constant fear of fire at work can also utilise it as a weapon against their exploiters.
Factory fires have occasionally spread to surrounding slum areas where workers live, but the slums are anyway themselves a living fire hazard.
The growth of slums in the last 15 years has been unprecedented. In 1990, there were nearly 715 million slum dwellers in the world. By 2000, the slum population had increased to 912 million and to approximately 998 million today. UN-HABITAT estimates that if current trends continue, it will reach 1.4 billion by 2020. One of every three city dwellers lives in slum conditions; (http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2006/issue2/0206p24.htm)
In Sub-Saharan Africa 72% of city occupants live in slums, rising to 100% in some states. In South-East Asia 29.6% of the population is urban, of which 59% are slum dwellers. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/5078654.stm). So millions of the world's poor are squatters, with no legal title to whichever patch of this earth they may precariously occupy. (Of course, this legal status does not prevent many of them being charged rent by slum landlords in shanty towns. But these petty capitalist entrepeneurs use the might of organised force rather than any legal right of property title to enforce their economic domination and extract profits. Which is how many present legal property rights were originally established...)
Many garment workers are part of the 2 million slum population of the capital city, Dhaka. Fire is a regular hazard and a constant fear here too. The past two months have seen several fires in urban slum settlements ("bustees") across Bangladesh. Here is one recent report, where 550 families lost their homes;
Dhaka, Jan 9 (bdnews24.com) – Jahanara Begum, 60, lost everything in the fire that destroyed her home along with hundreds of others at Dipikar Mor slum at south Begunbari on Friday.
"Nothing is left. Everything has been burned down. I spent the night awake by the side of a small fire lit by neighbours to protect themselves against cold," she told bdnews24.com on Saturday in the aftermath of the devastating blaze that burned down over 120 shanties and left an estimated 1,000 homeless.
Some were lucky to find space under the awnings of shops to save themselves from chilling dewfall.
But the slum blaze had deprived them of blankets and winter wear; they had nothing to save themselves from the cold excepting fire which, ironically, was to blame for the misery.
There were no reports of fatalities in Friday's blaze, but some received burn injuries.
The fire spread to the slum, with its hundreds of makeshift shanties, following the explosion of a gas cylinder at a nearby building. The fire first hit a number of tin-roofed brick houses before ravaging through the clusters of bamboo huts which were burnt to ashes by the time the fire was doused.
Fire-fighters from seventeen fire trucks took two hours, from 6pm to 8pm, to control the fire.
Jahanara said none of her family, excepting her rickshaw puller son, could go to work as the rest spent the day trying to collect what they could from the debris of the blaze.
"Even he (her son) did not want to go to work. But we needed the money. All that we had went up in the flames," she said.
Shahana, 30, was picking through what she could from the wrecked scene. She said, "I retrieved some spoons. There was a gold chain. I am not finding it."
She said that her family of seven used to live in a shanty at a monthly rent of Tk 2,000. She herself works in a garment factory. Her sister-in-law worked in a factory nearby. Her husband also worked in another factory.
They had just bought their monthly quota of rice after getting their salaries at the start of the month. There was a reserve fund stored in a can also. "But everything has been destroyed," she said.
The slum residents said most of them were outside at work when the blaze struck in the evening. By the time they received news and reached the site their houses were reduced to ashes. They could not save even a pot let alone their valuables. (http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?id=150560&cid=2)
Two weeks later on a Saturday afternoon 200 homes were destroyed by fire at the Bakolia shanty town in Chittagong, the country's north-eastern port city. A thousand people were left homeless. That same evening 1000 homes were lost in another fire at the 'Bihari slum' in Mirpur's Section 11 in Dhaka. Very high density housing built with highly flammable materials, such as the untreated bamboo often used as roof beams, means that - with no firefighting equipment immediately available - fire spreads quickly. In an hour or two thousands are left homeless, all possessions lost to the flames.(2) But one must bear in mind the possible relationship between arson and gentrification; fire is also sometimes used by property developers to clear slum areas in the quickest possible way for redevelopment.
A report from one recent fire describes how slum dwellers organise to help each other through such times;
"Pori, her husband and their four children were lucky to find shelter at their relatives’ place. [...] neighbours help each other out as much as they are able to. Immediately after the incident, they shared food, helped with basic cleaning and those who could spare some space offered shelter for the time being. Pori explained to me the community’s awareness about its man-power potential to contribute to rebuilding. As most of them have a paid job, they are also ready to take loans. Family representatives meet every week to reach common decisions on steps to be taken next." (http://urbanpovertyinbangladesh.blogspot.com/2010/03/slums-in-bangladesh-could-be-defined-by.html)
There are no 'Slumdog Millionaire' Hollywood feel-good happy endings here, no fantasies of deliverance from exploitation by the grace of an exploitative system.(3) Back in the real world people get on with piecing their lives back together as best they can.
1) See, for example; http://libcom.org/news/article.php/bangladesh-garment-revolt-140706 and
2) To illustrate further the dangers of unregulated infrastructure; this week (Monday 8th March) at the northern border town of Panchagarh a fire began when an electricity meter exploded in a house (the country's electricity supply infrastructure is notoriously unreliable and poorly maintained). The house caught fire and a strong wind helped the flames quickly spread to neighbouring dwellings - 500 homes were eventually burned to the ground.
3) This film about a young Mumbai slum-dweller who wins the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was co-produced with the company (Celador) that owns the game-show format. So the film is part of a larger integrated global marketing strategy. What next - a movie plot where a starving Ethiopian famine victim heroically wins the TV quiz with their last breath?