July 12, 2020

Bangladesh Pollution, Told in Colors and Smells

The odor rises off the polluted canal — behind the schoolhouse — where nearby factories dump their wastewater. Most of the factories are garment operations, textile mills and dyeing plants in the supply chain that exports clothing to Europe and the United States. Students can see what colors are in fashion by looking at the canal.

“Sometimes it is red,” said Tamanna Afrous, the school’s English teacher. “Or gray. Sometimes it is blue. It depends on the colors they are using in the factories.”

Nearly three months ago, the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people, in a disaster that exposed the risks in the low-cost formula that has made Bangladesh the world’s second-leading clothing exporter, after China, and a favorite of companies like Walmart, J. C. Penney and H M. That formula depends on paying the lowest wages in the world and, at some factories, spending a minimum on work conditions and safety.

But it also often means ignoring costly environmental regulations. Bangladesh’s garment and textile industries have contributed heavily to what experts describe as a water pollution disaster, especially in the large industrial areas of Dhaka, the capital. Many rice paddies are now inundated with toxic wastewater. Fish stocks are dying. And many smaller waterways are being filled with sand and garbage, as developers sell off plots for factories or housing.

Environmental damage usually trails rapid industrialization in developing countries. But Bangladesh is already one of the world’s most environmentally fragile places, densely populated yet braided by river systems, with a labyrinth of low-lying wetlands leading to the Bay of Bengal. Even as pollution threatens agriculture and public health, Bangladesh is acutely vulnerable to climate change, as rising sea levels and changing weather patterns could displace millions of people and sharply reduce crop yields.

Here in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka and the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, some factories treat their wastewater, but many do not have treatment plants or chose not to operate them to save on utility costs. Many of Savar’s canals or wetlands are now effectively retention ponds of untreated industrial waste.

“Look, it’s not only in Savar,” said Mohammed Abdul Kader, who has been Savar’s mayor since his predecessor was suspended in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. “The whole country is suffering from pollution. In Savar, we have lots of coconut trees, but they don’t produce coconuts anymore. Industrial pollution is damaging our fish stocks, our fruit produce, our vegetables.”

Bangladesh has laws to protect the environment, a national environment ministry and new special courts for environmental cases. Yet pollution is rising, not falling, experts say, largely because of the political and economic power of industry.

Tanneries and pharmaceutical plants are part of the problem, but textile and garment factories, a mainstay of the economy and a crucial source of employment, have the most clout. When the environment ministry appointed a tough-minded official who levied fines against textile and dyeing factories, complaining owners eventually forced his transfer.

“Nobody in the country, at least at the government level, is thinking about sustainable development,” said Rizwana Hasan, a prominent environmental lawyer. “All of the natural resources have been severely degraded and depleted.”

Less than two miles from the site of Rana Plaza, the Genda primary school has a student body made up mostly of the children of garment workers. Golam Rabbi, 11, who is the top-ranked student in the third grade there, lives with his mother and two younger brothers in a single room. The boys use price tags collected from factory floors as makeshift playing cards.

“The school always smells,” Golam said. “Sometimes we can’t even eat there. It is making some kids sick. Sometimes my head spins. It is hard to concentrate.”

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/15/world/asia/bangladesh-pollution-told-in-colors-and-smells.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Engineer Arrested in Bangladeshi Building Collapse

The collapse of Rana Plaza, which housed five garment factories employing more than 3,000 workers, is now considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry, with the death toll so far at 446 and many others still missing.

The arrest of the engineer, Abdur Razzaque Khan, was a surprise twist since he was regarded as something of a hero for trying to avert the April 24 disaster. A day before the building collapsed, Mr. Khan had been summoned because cracks had suddenly appeared in the structure, forcing an evacuation. He concluded that the building had become dangerous and should be closed until experts could conduct a more thorough investigation — advice that turned out to be grimly prescient.

His comments appeared the next morning in at least one national newspaper. But the police say that the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, and the factory owners are blaming Mr. Khan, saying he told them the cracks were just a small problem. A police official said that Mr. Khan is being interrogated to determine who is telling the truth.

The police have already arrested two engineers involved in the building’s construction, along with Mr. Rana and the factory owners, who ordered employees to work on the morning of the collapse. The disaster has focused attention on safety conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh, now the world’s No. 2 clothing exporter, after China.

But it has brought growing scrutiny of the response by the Bangladeshi authorities. Public suspicions about the death toll have become so fevered that the Army general overseeing the rescue effort called a news conference to denounce the rumors.

“Some quarters have alleged that bodies are disappearing,” Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy told Bangladeshi reporters. “They are fueling public anger by spreading rumors that actual casualties are unbelievably high.”

The authorities say 2,437 people have been rescued. Earlier, the Army announced that 146 people were still missing, a number that drew broad public skepticism. Hundreds of fliers of missing people are posted in Savar, and some people believe that several hundred or more remain unaccounted for. The recovery effort is expected to last at least several more days.

“Don’t listen to any rumors,” General Suhrawardy said. “We would like to assure that we won’t leave the place until we rescue the last body.”

On Thursday, the authorities also suspended the mayor of Savar for his role in the disaster. He is accused of improperly granting building permits to Mr. Rana, a political ally, and of failing to take appropriate steps to close the building once the structural cracks had appeared.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/world/asia/engineer-arrested-in-bangladeshi-building-collapse.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bangladesh Factory, Site of Fatal Fire, Made Western Brands

The blaze at the Smart Export Garments factory, which erupted Saturday afternoon in a densely populated area of Dhaka, the capital, is the latest tragedy for a Bangladeshi garment industry that is now the world’s second-biggest clothing exporter, trailing only China. Two months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers, where jeans, lingerie and sweaters were made for retailers like Walmart and Sears.

International labor advocates, who have been pressing global brands and retailers to help pay to upgrade fire-safety measures in Bangladeshi factories, said the latest fire was a grim reminder of how conditions must be improved to ensure the safety of workers who are paid as little as $37 a month to make clothing for Western retailers and consumers. Just since November, advocates say, Bangladesh has also experienced 18 other nonfatal factory fires.

“After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, in a statement.

On Sunday, labels from several French brands, including Sol’s, Scott and Fox and G Blog by Gemo could be seen in the burned second-floor Smart Export Garments factory. Two other labels manufactured for Inditex, the world’s largest fashion group, were also visible — Leftie’s and Bershka. Labor activists found labels for the German low-cost brand KIK and a purchase order by a New York firm, M. Hidary Company, for Hawaiian Authentics swimwear.

Inditex, a conglomerate that operates more than 5,000 stores worldwide, is perhaps best known for the popular Spanish brand Zara. Company executives in Spain could not be reached for comment on Sunday. But a Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, quoted an unnamed local representative for the company as saying that Inditex was unaware that the Smart Export factory was making its goods.

“We are now sifting through the purchase order documents to know who were given the work orders and how Smart Export Garment Ltd. got the orders under subcontract,” the unnamed company official told The Daily Star. “The actual receivers of purchase orders have given the work orders to Smart Export Garment in a sneaky way without informing the buyer.”

Global brands have promised Western consumers that clothes are manufactured in safe factories that are inspected through regular audits, often conducted by third-party auditing firms. But the fire at the Smart Export Garments factory has again exposed loopholes in that system: the factory was filling many orders on subcontracts with other suppliers for global brands. It was unclear whether the factory had ever been audited.

The Bangladeshi authorities have confirmed that the building was illegally constructed and lacked proper fire-safety measures, including extinguishers and emergency exits. More than 300 workers were inside the factory when the fire erupted Saturday. Most of the workers were young seamstresses who panicked after discovering that one exit was blocked by a locked metal gate. Some jumped from windows to escape.

“We are sure that this factory doesn’t have a fire license, and they never applied for one,” said Mamun Mahmud, a fire official who is part of a special committee investigating the blaze. He noted that a fire safety license was mandatory for all garment factories in Bangladesh.

Moreover, the factory was apparently hiring teenagers. In Bangladesh, labor laws allow teenagers as young as 14 to work in nonhazardous jobs. The legal age to work in a garment factory is a bit unclear. Mr. Mahmud, the fire official, said garment factories were not supposed to hire anyone younger than 18; others say the age limit is 16. Several of the fire victims were 16 or 17, according to their families, while labor groups say one victim was only 15.

Moyna Akter, 20, had worked in the factory for two months before quitting. But her younger sister, Kohinur, kept working, as a helper, earning as little as $30 a month. She died in the fire.

“I will not work anymore for any garment factory,” Moyna Akter said.

Several workers remain hospitalized with injuries from the fire, including at least one in critical condition. Yet local labor advocates say that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a powerful industry trade group, has refused to provide assistance to the injured, since the burned factory was not a member of the group.

One of the injured workers, Samsur Nahar, is said to be unconscious and suffering seizures at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Family members say she is being kept in a ward so crowded that she does not have a bed.

Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, and Jim Yardley from New Delhi.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/world/asia/bangladesh-factory-site-of-fatal-fire-made-western-brands.html?partner=rss&emc=rss