The Aswad Composite Mills factory, in Gazipur, on fire in October. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
When the overheated chimney of a drying machine sparked a fire in Aswad Composite Mills, a Bangladesh garment factory that made clothing for western brands such as Walmart, Gap, H&M and Carrefour, a few brave workers grabbed a fire hose.
They turned on the hose, but no water came out. A second attempt yielded a few drips.
By the time the fire department finally showed up two-and-a-half hours later, and the fire was put out, seven people had died during the Oct. 8 tragedy.
“I think those people died because there was such a small amount of water," one worker told Human Rights Watch. "In fact you can say there was no water because it only just dripped out of the hose pipe when we switched it on for the second time.”
The worker was among a group of Aswad employees who spoke to Human Rights Watch, which on Thursday night published the report: "Bangladesh factory deaths could have been prevented."
The report details an alleged coverup at the factory and highlights how the fire hydrant system at the plant did not work properly, allowing the flames to spread quickly, and promises to bring more pressure on western brands to improve their oversight of factories in Bangladesh and other developing countries.
"The Bangladesh government and one of the retailers, Primark, said they had uncovered safety violations at the factory prior to the fire but no action was taken," the Human Rights Watch report said. "Other companies said they had not inspected Aswad because they did not have a direct relationship with it."
Human Rights Watch officials said they spoke to five garment mill workers who said they attended a meeting the day after the fire.
"They were told by a senior manager not to tell outsiders that the factory had run out of water," the report said. "One man explained, 'He said that your bonuses and wages will be paid on time, but do not leak the information about what actually happened, do not leak the fact that there was no water, otherwise we will not open the factory again.'"
Nafiz Sikder, managing director of Palmal group which owns Aswad Mills, denied any meeting happened.
According to documents found in the burnt-out factory and copied, Aswad’s customers over the past twelve months included Walmart, Gap, American Eagle, H&M, Primark, Asda, NEXT, Carrefour, Lacoste, Just Jeans, Target (Australia) and Woolworths (Australia).
Aswad has also supplied clothing to Hudson’s Bay Co. and Loblaw, according to U.S. customs information obtained by the Star.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead