On November 24, 2012, a fire alarm sounded inside the bustling eight-story Tazreen Fashions garment factory, situated on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Concerned workers stopped what they were doing and turned to their supervisors. “Nothing has happened, just keep working,” said one production manager, who pulled down a collapsible gate blocking the exit.
But this was no false alarm. A fire was already raging on the ground floor, dooming many of those who were forced to continue working.
Panicked and trapped, staff scrambled for the smoky, pitch black stairwells. As smoke filled each floor, some workers retreated to the windows – only to find them crisscrossed with iron bars.
When the smoke had finally cleared, revealing the charred skeleton of Tazreen Fashions, 112 of the factory’s workers had died – many had burned alive because of the callousness of their employers.
Now, more than a year after the tragedy, those responsible for the unnecessary loss of life are being held accountable – starting with the factory owner.
“Delowar [Hossain] and his wife Mahmuda Akter and 11 others have been charged with death due to negligence,” police investigator AKM Mohsinuzzaman Khan told AFP. All 13 could face life in prison for culpable homicide.
Khan added that it was likely the first time that a garment factory owner had been charged over a fire, due in large part to the local economy’s reliance on the garment industry.
Bangladesh is the world’s number two exporter of apparel. More than four million workers are employed by the country’s 4,500-plus garment factories. They supply cheap clothing to some of the world’s most popular brands: Wal-mart, the Gap, and H&M, to name a few.
“Factory owners, who are among the wealthiest people in Bangladesh and occupy 10 percent of seats in Parliament, are rarely held accountable for fires and other accidents,” reported The New York Times. “The police initially said they did not have enough evidence to bring a case against [Hossain], but a court ordered officials to investigate in response to a petition by human rights activists.”
Western apparel brands have been forced to take a second look at the human cost of their cheap goods. H&M announced that it would raise wages in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Other industry leaders formed The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in October, which pushes for reform over relocation – since moving the factories to another country would only lead to an increase in poverty.