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Fatal fire at major Indian denim supplier highlights lack of industry safety standards

By Simone Preuss

Feb 17, 2020

Different day, same story: A fire breaks out in a garment factory, exits are shut and workers die because they cannot get out. This time, Nandan Denim was affected, in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The fire broke out last Saturday evening, killing seven workers as the sole exit was reachable only via a ladder. What is different this time is that the denim factory in question is not a small, unknown supplier but one of India’s largest denim manufacturers (the largest according to Nandan Denim) supplying to more than 20 global brands including Target, Ann Taylor, Mango and Wrangler, and Walmart and H&M (through its sister company) that prides itself on its factory working conditions.

“This is for social comfort and intellectual improvement of the employee. This ensures a higher standard of working conditions, to make life worth living for the employees. It is a voluntary effort to improve the existing industrial system and the condition of employment in the factory. This includes among the employees a sense of responsibility, dignity, belonging and makes them proud of themselves and the company,” reads the “Employees” section on Nandan Denim’s website under the heading “Statutory Labour Welfare Facility as per the Act”.

Death traps: Why doors and windows are shut at supplier factories

Actual conditions have been far from it as Saturday’s fire has proven. To western buyers, the fact that exits are generally shut or inaccessible may sound alien but it is common practice in India and other sourcing countries to keep workers inside the factory once they have entered for their shifts. This is done for a variety of reasons - to minimise lost time due to workers taking extended breaks, which means that bathroom breaks are limited and workers cannot even step out during the day to get some air - inhumane conditions, in other words, that lead to workers being sick due to lack of sunlight and fresh air and bladder conditions.

Another reason why exits are often locked and windows are grilled is because of fear of theft. These could be workers stealing merchandise and smuggling it outside (hence, making the ‘getting out’ part really difficult) or outsiders entering the factory, hence the barred windows. Studies have shown that healthy workers are happy workers and that happy workers are more productive; hence, time lost to injuries and ill health decreases the better a workplace takes care of its employees: “Healthy workers are productive and raise healthy families; thus healthy workers are a key strategy, i.e. goal, for overcoming poverty,” says the World Health Organisation, for example.

Factories need to invest in healthy, empowered employees

For garment factories, this seems to apply only on paper. Or on a company’s website where it is used to make foreign buyers feel good about choosing a particular factory, breathing a sigh of relief of having found a ‘compliant’ factory. But until international buyers walk that extra mile - literally - and visit all the suppliers they use, on a regular basis, rather than relying on the suppliers’ own descriptions, working conditions will not improve. Anonymous worker helplines to address complaints and the right to form unions are also of paramount importance.

Granted, it is hard for someone from a different culture and social strata who sticks out like a sore thumb during a factory visit to determine if workers are genuinely happy to work at a certain factory or if they are forced to show their happy faces for the foreign visitors. But, that is what surprise visits and liaisons on site are for as they know the local situation and can more easily see through a staged set up.

International buyers need to invest in transparent supplier relationships

Also, what is true for fashion is true for supplier relationships as well: Fast fashion may be trendy and the flavour of the month now but slow fashion will stand the test of time and last, enhancing one’s wardrobe and not burden it. Carefully chosen suppliers who communicate well and respond well to inquiries will stand the test of time and become long-term partners rather than many faceless and voiceless suppliers who just fulfil orders. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the current coronavirus situation.

In the case of Nandan Denim, a preliminary probe revealed that the factory had just one door that served as an entry and exit on the first floor of the two-storey building. This was accessible with a single ladder and there were no fire safety measures in place according to reports by the local police. The police have since arrested the director, general manager and fire safety officer of Nandan Denim, along with six persons, including the owner and managing director, of parent company Chiripal Group, a leading manufacturer of denim fabric in the country, who have been booked for culpable homicide and negligence. The state government issued a closure notice to the factory.

“We have issued a closure order to the facility so that more lives are not put at risk. We will review the safety aspects before allowing resumption of manufacturing operations,” said Vipul Mittra, additional chief secretary of the Labour and Employment Department, according to The Indian Express. Mittra also said that Nandan Denim would pay an ex gratia of 1 million Indian rupees (14,000 US dollars or 10,700 British pounds) each to the families of the deceased and would provide a job to one family member of each of the deceased workers, based on their qualifications.

In the meantime, Nandan Denim announced that sales rose by 7.65 percent to 3.66 billion Indian rupees (51.2 million US dollars or 39 million British pounds) in the quarter that ended December 2019 as against Rs 3.39 billion Indian rupees (47.58 million US dollars or 36.5 million British pounds) during the previous quarter that ended December 2018. Net profit declined by 65.7 percent to 16.6 million Indian rupees (232,000 US dollars or 178,000 British pounds) compared to Rs 48.4 million Indian rupees (677,000 US dollars or 520,000 British pounds) in the same time period last year.

Photo credit: Alex Andrews, Pexels