Abir Abdullah Documents Deadly Oct. 8 Bangladesh Garment Factory Fire

Abir Abdullah Fire Oct. 2013

A factory worker removes iron rods from a damaged machine after a devastating fire at the 2-story Aswad Composite Mill in Gazipur, Bangladesh, Oct. 9, 2013. EPA/Abir Abdullah

Last week, another fire broke out in a Bangladesh garment factory. At least 9 people were killed in the Oct. 8 blaze which began at 6:30pm. Local media have reported that 50 people were injured. Abir Abdullah, whose work on dangers in the garment industry was awarded this year’s professional grant, covered the fire.

$6,400 for the life of Shumu Akhter’s husband, the father of her 2-year-old child.

The fire began in the knitting section of Aswad Composite Mills, in Gazipur, a city 40 miles north of Dhaka. Water shortages and lack of nearby fire stations made extinguishing the fire more difficult. The factory has ties to Loblaw’s, H&M, Walmart, Next and Hudson Bay Company. These companies all deny direct contact with the factory, while acknowledging that they use Aswad for source materials, or noting that that ended their relationships with Aswad prior to the fire.

Upon learning about the fire, Abir knew he had to get there as soon as possible. He started working early in the morning on Oct. 9. Firefighters were still dousing the remaining flames. It was smokey and the machines were burned into skeletons.

“When we finished shooting inside the factory, we came outside and suddenly found Shumu Akhter crying holding her 2-year-old daughter unable to find her husband, pleading ‘I want to see him, he is here,'” recounts Abir. “She was haunted and wanted to get into the burned factory desperately. I photographed her and then tried to console her, but how can I console her?”

At the hospital, Abir saw 5 charred bodies on the floor covered with white clothes. He felt grief and helplessness thinking of Shumu Akhter trying to identify her husband from the charred remains.

Aswad Composite Mills will pay 500,000 taka ($6,400 USD) in compensation for each of the dead in addition to another 200,000 taka from an insurance plan, reported Bloomberg. The company would give $6,400 for the life of Shumu Akhter’s husband, the father of her 2-year-old child.

Abir’s work on the blaze was featured in the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Financial Times and many others. Yahoo News published a moving slideshow of 13 images from Abir, showing the grief and destruction that the fire brought. The slideshow begins with photos of Shumu Akhter.

Abir’s images confront us with the real dangers garment workers face in Bangladesh’s factories, reminding us all that our purchases have consequences and spurring the world to demand better of their retailers and clothing manufacturers.

The Alexia Foundation supports our grantees to produce stories and images that drive change. See more of Abir’s powerful ongoing work here.

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