At least four people were injured on Tuesday morning after a fire broke out at one of H&M’s supplier factories in the Gazipur district of Bangladesh—its second in four days. The conflagration would have exacted a bigger toll if it wasn’t for the fact that it took place before the facility’s opening shift. “Had the fire started even one hour later, the factory would have been filled with more than 6,000 workers, and the risk of death would have been extreme,” according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, one of four labor-rights groups that only recently renewed concerns about delays in safety renovations at H&M’s so-called “strategic suppliers.”
In an update to an October report published just days after the twin incidents at Matrix Sweater Factory, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labor Rights Forum, the Maquila Solidarity Network, and the Worker Rights Consortium noted that all but one of H&M’s suppliers remain behind schedules in making repairs. In fact, more than 50 percent still lack adequate fire exits.
“More than two and a half years into the process of the Bangladesh Accord [on Fire and Building Safety] every single mandated repair at H&M’s suppliers should have already been completed,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said in a statement. “However, the sad reality is that hardly any of H&M’s supplier factories in Bangladesh can be called safe.”
Matrix appears on H&M’s website with a “silver” rating. Import records reveal that JCPenney was also a significant buyer in 2015. Other clients, per the website of the factory’s parent company, Labib Group/Nice Cotton, include Gap, Esprit, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, and Walmart.
Interestingly enough, the Gap and Walmart-backed Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a mostly American rival organization to the original Accord, inspected the Matrix factory nearly two years ago.
A May 2014 safety inspection report noted a large number of life-threatening hazards, including a lack of adequate fire exits, an absence of fire doors and sprinklers, insufficient smoke alarms, and non-enclosed stairwells. The Alliance had required repairs to be completed in six months.
Follow-up inspections by the Accord indicated, however, that none of the most dangerous hazards, including ones electrical in nature, had been fully remedied as late as last week. Yet the Alliance reports on its website that renovations at Matrix are “on track,” which the group defines as “progressing adequately.”
“It is astonishing that the Alliance has Matrix Sweaters rated as ‘on track’ with safety renovations,” Nova said. “This factory has missed dozens of deadlines to eliminate fire hazards and make the structure safe, with 72 different hazards still uncorrected almost two years after inspection. Just how dangerous does a factory have to be to earn criticism from the Alliance?”
Although Matrix managed to escape tragedy on the scale of the Tazreen Fashions fire of 2012, the recent fires nevertheless highlight the importance of concerns about tardy repairs.
“In response to our concerns H&M tried to reassure its customers that their suppliers have adequate fire exits, but failed to provide assurances that this work would get done,” said Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications, at the International Labor Rights Forum. H&M should be thankful that their complacency in this area has not resulted in another deadly disaster.”
For its part, the Alliance said in a statement that it’ll be conducting a follow-up inspection to gauge the progress at Matrix. It also noted that its goal to provide a safe working environment free of structural, electrical and fire-related hazards is complicated by infrastructure issues in Bangladesh, such as lack of access to water supplies and overcrowding of buildings.
“All of these [member-sourced] factories have been inspected, their 1.1 million workers provided with Alliance fire safety training, and all are now undergoing remediation to ensure they meet the highest standards of safety—progress that is saving lives,” a spokesman said, adding that the Alliance and its 27 member companies have blacklisted 26 factories that failed to comply with those standards. “While much progress is being made in Bangladesh ready-made garment factories, this fire highlights the need for continued, collaborative efforts to ensure that all factories are thoroughly remediated, with the greatest possible emphasis on empowering workers with the safety training they need to respond in an emergency.”
Similarly, H&M said that its team in Dhaka is “closely monitoring the situation.”
“We have long-term strategic partnerships with our business partners. We will continue our support of our suppliers in improving and upgrading their production facilities to safer and higher international standards as well as their management capabilities, allowing them to become competitive in a sustainable way,” press officer Håcan Andersson told Ecouterre. “We are in close dialogue with the suppliers and are following up on the work that remains to be done.”
According to Andersson, the total number of safety issues that “have been handled” has increased by 80 percent since October.