Sagar Chowdhury

In 2000, Sagar Chowdhury was living in Narasingdi, Bangladesh. He was the managing director of the family business, Chowdhury Knitwears. In November 2000, 52 of his employees died in a fire at the factory. The fire happened late in the evening. It was started by a spark from an electrical “gun” used for putting stain remover onto cloth.

The workers at Chowdhury Knitwears usually worked twelve hours a day. They worked almost every day all year long. Some of the adults working there were getting only six cents an hour, and children even less. There was no overtime pay.

Between 1995 and 2000 there were thirty fires in clothing factories in Bangladesh, and people died in seventeen. Sagar’s factory was typical of the places where those fires happened. It was in an old building. The halls were narrow. There were electrical wires hanging everywhere.

The day of the fire everyone had to work 18 hours because the company was rushing to get sweaters ready to send to England. When the fire started, many of the 1,250 workers ran downstairs to the main entrance, but when they got there, they discovered that the gate across the doors was locked. The ones who got down first started to run back up, but they collided with others coming down. Most of those who died, mainly young women, were trampled to death on the staircase.

When he was interviewed by a reporter soon after the fire, Sagar said nothing about the people who had died, but he did complain about having to spend $US 20,000 on new safety equipment. And he also said, “This fire has cost me $586, 373, and that doesn’t include $70,000 for machinery and around $20,000 for furniture. I have made commitments to meet deadlines, and I still have those deadlines. I am now paying for air freight at $10 a dozen when I should be shipping by sea at 87 cents a dozen. That means I am paying 12 times the shipping price.”

Sagar told the reporter that in a good year his business made a profit of US$1 million. The reporter mentioned that some adult employees at Chowdhury Knitwears were making only $25 US a month. Sagar replied that some workers made much more, up to $74 a month. He also said that his workers were paid double for overtime, but when the reporter asked him more questions about this, he suddenly stopped talking.

Sagar also explained how, when the fire started he was not at work. But his brother, Shamin, had been there. He tried to fight the fire with a fire extinguisher, but it wasn’t working properly and sprayed liquid over his face.

Fifteen years earlier, there had been no clothing industry in Bangladesh. But by 2000 clothes made up 76% of the country’s exports. Manufacturers from all over the world were taking advantage of the cheap labour in Bangladesh. Because the average worker was earning only $42US a month, companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Walmart, and Gap could get clothes made cheaply in Bangladesh. Nearly half of the clothes being made there were going to the United States.

Although there had been many fires before, the fire at Chowdhury Knitwears was the worst, and in the weeks that followed there were protests. The families of the workers who died in the fire demanded US$3,700 each in compensation—far more than is usually given in cases like this. In the end they got $1,945 each. However, the compensation only went to the families of 39 of the 52 victims. For religious reasons, the relatives of the other thirteen refused to allow the government to do an autopsy on the dead person’s body. So they got nothing.

There was an official government inquiry after the fire. It was decided that Chowdhury Knitwears was responsible for three reasons: because the workers had been locked in; because there were not enough fire extinguishers; and because the stairs leading down to the exit were much too steep.

One of the doctors who worked on the inquiry said afterward that the inquiry had been a waste of time. People always get excited about these things when they happen he said. But it means nothing. They soon forget all about it.

Talking about the fire, Muhammad Saidur Rehman, the owner of another factory said: “We consider the workers to be our slaves, and this belief is made all the easier by a supply of labour that is endlessly abundant.”

-information from: the New York Times, 01.04.15 (Barry Bearak)