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India: fatal factory fire shows that workplaces are still unsafe

By Simone Preuss

Dec 10, 2019

A deadly fire at an Anaj Mandi area factory in north Delhi killed 43 people in the early morning hours on Sunday; 16 to 20 people were injured. The story sounds only too familiar: The building in a residential area of Delhi was illegally operated as a factory that made various products, including garments. About 70 factory workers - mainly migrants and some minors - were sleeping in the factory when the fire broke out. While the authorities tried to rush those injured to nearby hospitals, many died from smoke inhalation.

Though compensation promises by the authorities were quick to come forward, the worst fire in 20 years and the worst in the nation’s capital, has exposed the need for stringent fire and building safety regulations and their strict enforcement. “The manifestly unsafe factory highlights the urgent need for enforcement of fire and building safety regulations and credible safety monitoring in India,” said the Clean Clothes Campaign in a statement on Monday.

Location and local practices hindered rescue operations

What hindered rescue operations was the location of the building that housed various factories in Azad Market, in the old town of Delhi with narrow alleyways. According to the BBC, “rescuers had to carry out victims on their shoulders one-by-one with firefighters cutting away window grills to access the building”. It is common in India to attach strong metal grills to all windows to deter theft and unallowed entry. However, in case of a fire, this is how buildings become death traps that leave only one or no way out. At Anaj Mandi, one of the two staircases was also reportedly blocked by stored products and the one accessible exit was locked.

According to officials, the factory “lacked any safety licenses” and various sources allege that the factory was operating illegally. “These unnecessary deaths and other recent tragic building incidents show the urgent need for transparent and credible enforcement of fire and building safety regulations throughout India’s industrial sector. Existing inspection systems, including the corporate social auditing firms used by multinationals to check on their supplier factories, have thus far failed to structurally improve factory safety across the country,” sums up the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Government is promising compensation to victims

Though the Delhi government has been quick to come up with compensation promises (1 million Indian rupees or about 14,100 US dollars to the families of the deceased and 100,000 Indien rupees or 1,400 US dollars for the injured as well as covering their medical expenses) and the Indian government promised 200,000 Indian rupees or 2,800 US dollars and 50,000 rupees or 700 US dollars, respectively, to the families of the deceased and the injured, they are merely ad hoc measures that do not take care of workers’ needs in the long run.

“Compensation measures covering at least loss of income and medical costs should be properly calculated for long-term coverage of the needs of families who lost their breadwinners, based on established norms, as laid down in ILO Convention 121 on employment injury benefits. Additionally, compensation arrangements should take into account workers’ pain and suffering,” advises the Clean Clothes Campaign.

How can workers still be trapped in factories?

In addition, the circumstances of the fire - which are by no means exceptional or isolated but rather the norm - need to be scrutinised: “These deaths furthermore raise the question as to why it is even possible that workers are trapped in a factory fire on a weekend night, while the factory was not operating. If workers were sleeping at the factory because they could not afford housing or transportation costs, then this tragedy sheds a light on the poverty wages pervasive throughout the industrial sector, especially among vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and minors,” points out the Clean Clothes Campaign.

According to local media reports, the building and factory owner has been arrested and the Delhi government ordered a magistrate level inquiry and filed charges, however, finding one scapegoat to punish will not tackle the problem at source and make factories safer in the long run.

“It remains unclear whether the factory was producing for export or the growing internal Indian consumer market. Irrespective of who placed the orders in the factory, they should take their responsibility to compensate the workers who suffered making their product,” demands the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Repeated factory fires - especially in garment producing countries other than Bangladesh - show that the industry has a long way to go in terms of establishing fire and building safety measures, compensating workers fairly and taking pressure off factory owners by increasing price and time margins. After all, none of the products made are ‘must have’ items anyway - on the contrary, they are ‘nice to have’ at best and ‘wear and throw’ fast fashion at worst. And that is the real tragedy here.

Images: Schone Kleren Campagne and FashionUnited