Weeping family members of missing workers anxiously waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones has become a regular sight

Bangladesh, the second-largest garment exporter after China, has a long history of industrial disasters and abuses, including factory fires with workers trapped behind locked exits.

Lax enforcement of safety standards and unsafe working conditions in its factories make fires a tragedy of the commons here, largely in the apparel sector which accounts for about 80% of the country’s exports.

Industrial safety in Bangladesh has repeatedly come under intense scrutiny following each disaster. Although public outcry followed each trauma and tragedy, working conditions in garment factories have remained largely unchanged.

Weeping family members of missing workers anxiously waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones has become a regular sight.

The authorities promised better safety standards after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured hundreds in 2013 in Bangladesh’s apparel industry’s biggest disaster.

The collapse led to better labour conditions and tougher safety rules. But many local industries failed to maintain safety compliance, leading to accidents each year.

Tragedies of past and present have often been attributed to safety lapses. Deadly fires have plagued Bangladeshi factories – namely apparel fires reached a five-year high in 2020 – showing bad days will not be over if the industry is allowed to return to past practices.

In 2020, the country saw 383 industrial fires; 273 of them occurred at apparel factories, according to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence.  

Between 2012 and 2019, there were more than 150 fires and other safety incidents connected to Bangladesh’s apparel industry, killing more than 1,300 people, and leaving 3,800-plus people injured, according to the Solidarity Center.

At least 2,000 workers and other staff died in at least 26 blazes in factories over the past two decades, according to the International Labour Organization.

The last five years saw 5,834 industrial fire incidents, which caused a financial loss of Tk250 crore. Dhaka division reported the highest industrial fires and Sylhet the lowest, according to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence. 

At least 52 people died in a fire Thursday at an industrial building in Narayanganj, the latest industrial disaster in the country.

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In July 2019, six employees of a spinning mill in Gazipur were killed in a factory fire; and 13 in a boiler explosion in 2017 in the same area.

In January 2015, at least 13 people died in a plastics factory fire in Dhaka.

In 2016, a fire triggered by a boiler explosion at Tampaco Foils Ltd in Tongi killed at least 25 people. Also, a fire broke out in a sweater factory in Gazipur the same year, killing at least four workers.

A fire killed 117 people in 2012 as it raced through the Tazreen Fashion factory. The next January, eight workers died in a fire at Smart Export Garments; in May that year, eight more workers died as a fire swept through another garment factory in the capital.

In 2010, fire also killed 21 workers at Garib and Garib Garments and 26 at Ha-Meem Group’s sportswear factory.