Those who are saying that Saturday's fire at a garment factory which killed 111 people comes as a warning, albeit a costly one, are wrong. Though the deadliest fire to date, it is certainly not the first, there have been more despite such warnings. Over 300 people have been killed in garment factory fires in the last six years. The reasons for the colossal losses to life and property have all been the same or similar. Lack of emergency exits -- indeed, lack of any exit, with workers being locked in to the premises. Lack of proper fire drills -- in fact, factory officials have often been reluctant to let the workers stop work and leave the building, whether for a drill or in the case of an actual fire; absence of fire extinguishers, or functioning ones, or staff who know how to operate them; lack of proper building planning and construction. All at the cost of thousands of lives that, on a good day, work from nine up to even 24 hours, for minimum wages of Tk. 3,000 per month; and, on a bad day, end up in ashes in a mass grave.
Though criticism from people and the press and pressure from foreign buyers have resulted in some improvement over the years, much, much more remains to be done. And the latest tragedy is anything but a warning. It is an all too common and fatal repetition of history. It can, and must, be ended through multifaceted efforts from the factory owners, business associations, the government and foreign buyers. As a leading economist has pointed out recently, compliance is not cheap, and even buyers go to less compliant companies for lower prices. Garment factory workers are also barred from forming trade unions, a violation of their basic labour rights, which prevents them from unionising against poor working conditions and pay.
For a 20-billion USD industry that accounts for 80% of the country's exports and a major share of its GDP; an industry that has turned around the nation's economy, not to mention the lives of the owners; the least we can do for those on whose hard labour it runs, is ensure their safety. May there never be another repetition of such a tragedy.