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What's causing Bangladesh's repeated fire tragedies?

March 2, 2024

The Southeast Asian nation has seen some of the worst building blazes in the world in recent years, with each incident claiming dozens of lives.

Firefighters work to contain a fire at a commercial complex in Dhaka
Dhaka sees frequent deadly fires every yearImage: Mahmud Hossain Opu/picture alliance/AP

A massive blaze that engulfed a six-story building in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, has claimed the lives of at least 46 people and left dozens wounded.

The deadly fire, which started at the Green Cozy Cottage Shopping Mall on Bailey Road late on Thursday, is the latest in a long list of fire catastrophes in cities across the Southeast Asian country in recent decades.

These fires often occur in densely populated workplaces such as busy markets or overcrowded factories. According to data published by the Bangladeshi government in November, Dhaka, one of the world's most densely populated urban areas, sees about five fire incidents every day. The causes of these fires are typically attributed to the disregard of safety measures by both building owners and business operators.

A firefighter walks through a half burned building of plastic factory.
Faulty wiring has been identified as one of the most common causes for fires in buildings across BangladeshImage: Sultan Mahmud Mukut/SOPA Images/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Issues such as faulty gas cylinders, air conditioners and substandard electrical wiring persist, and continue to set houses and businesses ablaze.

Since 2013, a series of devastating building fires in cities across Bangladeshhave claimed more than 1,300 lives.

Deadly summer of 2022

In June 2022, a major fire engulfed sections of an inland container depot near the southeastern port city of Chittagong. It took firefighters about four days to completely extinguish the fire, which had triggered a series of explosions.

Volunteers stand next to the bodies of victims who died after a massive fire broke out in an inland container depot near the port city Chittagong
The fire near Chittagong killed 50 people, including 10 firefightersImage: Stringer/Reuters

About 50 people were killed, including 10 firefighters, and around 200 others were injured. Officials said the incident could have been caused by a container of hydrogen peroxide, which had been improperly stored.

Two months later, in August, another fire erupted in a plastics factory in Chawk Bazar, a densely populated market located south of Dhaka. The fire quickly spread to adjacent buildings, leading to the reported deaths of at least six individuals.

July 2021: Child workers die in factory fire

Women and children were among the 52 people killed in a massive fire that swept through Hashem Food Limited, a food processing company in the district of Narayanganj, south of Dhaka. Officials said the factory was built without proper authorization and lacked essential safety measures.

Worker unions reported that among the victims, 19 were children, and called for punitive action against the factory owner.

Victims mourn at the site after a fire broke out at a factory named Hashem Foods
Child laborers were among the victims of the fire in NarayanganjImage: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS

The tragedy prompted international organizations such as UNICEF to issue statements expressing concern about Bangladeshi children working in hazardous areas, where anti-child labor laws are disregarded.

2019: Warehouse, factory blazes kill more than 100

In 2019, a series of fires claimed nearly 100 lives in Bangladesh. On the night of February 20, 2019, a massive fire tore through several multistory buildings in Chawk Bazar. The blaze originated at a warehouse that had allegedly stored highly inflammable chemicals illegally, and resulted in the deaths of at least 71 people and numerous injuries.

A month later, a fire ripped through a 22-story building in the capital, claiming the lives of at least 26 and injuring dozens. That same month, another fire caused extensive damage to a densely populated market area made up of hundreds of tin sheds, depriving hundreds of vendors of their primary source of income.

Production lines show Workers make clothes at a Garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Many disasters occur in overcrowded workplaces, although some observers have noted improvements in factories in recent yearsImage: Joy Saha/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

In July, tragedy struck again when six employees at a textile factory in the city of Gazipur lost their lives in a factory fire.

2013: Rana Plaza fire brings garment industry under scrutiny

One of Bangladesh's most disastrous fires occurred in April 2013, when a fire tore through the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, a multistory building that housed factories producing clothing for some of the world's most renowned fashion brands.

The fire triggered the building's collapse, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,100 people and thousands of injuries. Just a year earlier, another garment factory in Dhaka was engulfed in flames, killing more than 112 people.

 Bangladesh Businessman at a clothes market
Bangladesh ranks among the world's largest exporters of garments and textilesImage: Mortuza Rashed/DW

The deadly disasters shone the spotlight on the harsh working conditions endured by workers in Bangladesh's garment industry, which caters to the global demand for fast fashion.

Widespread outrage and demands for change pressed leading global retail brands to sign international pacts to improve factory standards. The Bangladeshi government also responded by twice amending its labor law, in 2013 and 2018, to safeguard workers' rights and ensure safety in the workplace.

Taking stock of Bangladesh’s garment sector

Several reports, including one published by consultancy McKinsey & Company in 2021, have highlighted the notable improvement in terms of transparency and sustainability in the country's garment sector.

However, many observers believe the risk remains high, even in the more scrutinized textile industry. In August, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association warned in an open letter that rising temperatures were heightening the risk of fire in garment factories, potentially leading to more disasters.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler