On Wednesday night, flames ripped through a hub in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka and claimed at least 70 lives.
Originating in the narrow Nanda Kumar lane of Chawkbazar, the blaze quickly spread to nearby buildings, leaving many dead or trapped.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “expressed profound shock at the loss of lives in the fire and conveyed her deepest sympathy to the families of the victims”, said her press secretary.
The Dhaka District Administration is giving the families of the deceased Tk20,000 ex-gratia, reports the Dhaka Tribune.
The Ministry of External Affairs said on Twitter, “India is saddened by the loss of lives as a result of tragic fire in Dhaka on February 20. We offer our deepest condolences to relatives of those affected by the accident.”
Late Wednesday night, a residential-cum-commercial building caught fire while many of its occupants were sleeping.
BBC reports that the blaze started in a chemical warehouse on the ground floor and spread to higher floors and three other buildings despite firefighters’ efforts. The fire was fed by gas cylinders in parked vans.
Thirteen fire departments deployed 37 firefighters who struggled to put it out because of lack of water and the congested environment. They eventually battled the flames for 12 hours.
While some survived with critical injuries, others—members of a bridal party and residents in the area—got trapped and died. Most bodies are badly burnt, making identification difficult.
A few hours ago, Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) morgue started releasing the recovered bodies of victims to their families. “A total of 67 bodies are at the DMCH morgue. As far as I know, 30 bodies have been identified till now,” said Reza.
Reza added that identification is taking long because people are unable to recognise their relatives due to the severe burns.
Firefighters are still canvassing the site to recover bodies and rescue injured and trapped people.
Bangladesh versus labour rights
The Chawkbazar fire is another tragedy due to unhealthy workplaces in the country. In 2010, a fire started by an illegal chemical warehouse in the Nimtali district killed 124 people.
Although Bangladesh is swiftly growing its economy through billion-dollar export deals, its factories have been strongly criticised for their poor working conditions and a disregard for safety regulations.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 was the country’s deadliest industrial disaster—1,134 people died. However, this incident started a much-needed dialogue on labour rights in the country.
Dhaka Tribune reports that less than a month after this accident, authorities signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety; it’s an independent, legally-binding contract between global brands, retailers, and trade unions to ensure safe working spaces for Bangladesh’s labourers.
Additionally, through the Bipartisan Policy Center, officials instituted the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that dedicates itself to ensuring workers are treated according to their rights under Bangladeshi law.
These initiatives seemed to bring about some change. Dhaka Tribune says routine inspections have helped to fix 81% of safety hazards and 84% non-compliance issues.
However, these improvements have been mostly technical. Bangladeshi labourers still severely lack empowerment and protection.
In 2018, the Bangladeshi High Court ruled against the Accord after Smart Jeans Ltd legally contested it. The court believed that the independent Accord’s operations should be transitioned to the government, specifically the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) by November.
In a statement dated February 14, the Accord said it was deeply concerned about the lack of progress on the matter.
“The lack of a responsible transition places millions of RMG [Ready Made Garments] workers in danger and can reverse the substantial positive changes to RMG safety since May 2013. It also jeopardises the efforts of their international business customers from building and perpetuating transparent and reliable human rights due diligence responsibilities,” said the Accord.
As many as 1,690 factories are currently under the jurisdiction of the Accord and 655 are under the Alliance. BBC found that of the 745 factories government officials review, only 218 comply with safety regulations.
Therefore, handing over Accord operations to the RCC is not in the interest of Bangladeshi labourers.
Global community seeks action
Human Rights Watch has called upon PM Hasina to find a “lasting solution to the repeated pattern of worker unrest”.
In January and February, thousands of garment workers protested to convince Zara and H&M to pay them minimum wage. However, the companies fired 11,000 of them in retaliation.
Business Standard reports that of all garment exporters in the world, Bangladesh has the most poorly paid labourers. This situation is like a powder keg because the garment industry essentially powers the country’s economy.
As Bangladesh gears up for its general election this December, fair wages will be an important point of debate not only for labour unions but also for businesses whose work is impacted when labourers agitate for fair treatment.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius
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