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Garment factories in Bangladesh at increased fire risk as temperatures soar

A severe heat wave, with temperatures touching 42 degrees Celsius, is sweeping parts of Bangladesh and is likely to continue, according to the Met Office

Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg

Bloomberg

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By Arun Devnath

Bangladesh’s garment factories, a key source of foreign exchange for the South Asian nation, face the heightened risk of fires as summer temperatures soar, an industry lobby group warned.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the main industry body in the world’s No. 2 exporter after China, issued 11 instructions to its 4,500 members over the weekend. These include powering off all machinery at night, including lights, fans, electric irons and boilers. Factories were asked to keep the entry and exits free for movement and ensure all gates and passages are open during working hours.

“As garment factories use machinery and electric tools, there are risks of fire. Cautionary measures can avert disasters and save lives,” the association’s president Faruque Hassan said in a letter. The body also called for factory owners to establish security cameras on the premises to prevent any act of sabotage. 

Fires engulfed thousands of shops at two markets in the capital Dhaka over the last two weeks. A severe heat wave, with temperatures touching 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit), is sweeping parts of Bangladesh and is likely to continue, according to the Met Office.

Similar higher than usual summer temperatures are also forecast across many parts of neighboring India through June.

The garment industry contributes about 10% to Bangladesh’s GDP and employs more than 4 million people. It also accounts for more than 80% of the country’s exports and supplies products to global chains, including H&M, Adidas, Wal-Mart Inc. and GAP. 

The safety hazards faced by the country’s garment factory workers were laid bare when a commercial building called Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013 killing 1,133 workers and injuring thousands more. Since then Bangladesh has put in place new workplace safety regulations.

However, most factories have minimal cooling in place for workers on the floor. Most are cooled by ceiling fans and air-conditioning is rare.

“While Bangladesh has progressed significantly in fire and factory safety since the Rana Plaza disaster, the country is way behind in occupational health,” said Babul Akhter, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. “Factories are not adequately equipped to keep indoor temperatures low on hot summer days.” 

The fire hazard warning comes as high commodity costs, stoked by Russia’s war in Ukraine, have increased Bangladesh’s import bill and widened its trade deficit. This in turn has weakened the local currency and hurt its foreign exchange reserves. 

The market fires prompted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to order an investigation into whether the main opposition group, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its Islamist ally were behind the incidents. 

The BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir blamed the government and alleged it was using the incidents to “divert people’s attention from Bangladesh’s real problems,” such as the soaring cost of living.  

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First Published: Apr 18 2023 | 5:00 PM IST

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