Fire kills at least 42 workers in shoe factory in India

26 June 2002

Shree Jee International, a footwear manufacturing unit based in Agra, India and exporting to among others the UK and Ireland caught fire between 10-00 am and 10-15 am in the morning of May 24, 2002; resulting in a devastating accident. According to official figures, 42 workers died in the accident and 11 were injured. One of the injured worker in Safdarjung Hospital succumbed to his injuries on May 29, 2002.

The factory employing around 300 workers (of which between 200 and 250 were present) had only one door used for entrance and exit. There were five windows in the front and two at the back which were closed and heavily secured with wire mesh. There was one more door, completely locked, connecting the adjacent factory, Tej Shoes. At the time of the accident the only door at the entrance of the factory was locked.

There are two versions to the cause of fire in the factory: it could be due to an electric spark from the power line or as the workers said from the lighted cigarette/match stick thrown by the owner. The fire ignited the solutions, softner and other chemicals stored in the first room next to the door. The fire and subsequent explosions blocked any exit through that door. Most of the workers who survived were rescued by breaking open the two windows at the back and the door connecting Tej Shoes. Amar Singh, a worker rescued eight workers including children but could not survive himself as he was engulfed by the smoke and fire. His body was found hanging from one of the two windows. There were around 200 to 250 workers in the factory when the accident occurred.
Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), New Delhi, a labour support and labour research organisation discussed the issue with the leaders of the Central Trade Unions AITUC, CITU, HMS, AICCTU. It was felt that the incident calls for an immediate enquiry. Agra being an important footwear manufacturing centre providing employment to thousands, the enquiry may throw light on the conditions that prevailed in the footwear industry in Agra. Subsequently, it was decided to form a fact finding team inclusive of above mentioned trade unions under the auspices of the National Campaign on Labour Rights (NCLR) to probe into the accident and look at the safety procedures followed by the footwear units dealing with inflammable material and role of the labour department and the factory inspectorate in implementing the provisions of the Factory Act and protecting the lives of workers.
The team visited Agra on 29-30 May 2002 and found that numerous labour laws were violated, resulting not only in a disastrous fire but also in the high death toll. The company owner, the local administration and the foreign buyers all can be held responsible.
The company has produces exclusively for the export market. In Mumbai the contract was with four companies namely: Jishu Exports, Kejriwal Exports, Choudhary International and Chandan. The goods prepared had shipment marks to London and Dublin. They were at times sent to Germany also. Many a times foreign delegates visited the factory to check the quality of shoes.
The shoes had labels of Saffron, Toddy, Narisa, Toscana, Barratts and Simona pasted on them with price tags indicating values in pound sterling. Shipping documents indicated that the shoes were meant for Barratts Co., Jacobson Footwear. A shipping label was marked "Ship to Dublin". Half burnt brochures of a German super market chain was found but the name of the super market could not be retrieved.

Since the fire, the following steps have been undertaken:

  1. Owner Sunil Goyal has been held criminally liable for the accident in his factory and cases under IPC 304 and SC/ST Atrocities Act have been filed against him.

  2. On May 26, 2002, when Ms. Mayawati, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh visited the Agra in relation to the accident, she disbursed Rs.50,000 each to the families of the deceased and Rs.10,000 to the injured. The district administration also disbursed Rs.10,000 each to the families of the deceased.

  3. The Deputy Labour Commissioner's office has worked out a compensation package of Rs 2 lakhs each for the families of the deceased under Workmen's Compensation Act. The owner's assets were also being evaluated. However, the administration has not made it clear to the team how the total amount of Rs.84 lakhs will be recovered from the owner.

  4. The Agra Footwear Manufacturers' and Exporters' Chamber has promised Rs.10 lakhs for the families of the deceased and offered job to one member each from these families in the footwear industry.

  5. The District Magistrate has constituted four task forces with the City Magistrates, Assistant Directors of Factories, Labour Enforcement Officers, Representatives of fire service and Agra Footwear Manufacturers' and Exporters' Chambers as members, to go into the details of the safety measures for the footwear manufacturing units in Agra.

  6. The District Magistrate has also given a specific time frame of 15 days to the illegally operating footwear units to get themselves registered.

Below you can find the recommendations of the Fact Finding Team. The full report can be found at: www.cleanclothes.org/ftp/Agra.PDF. You can still write letters to both the authorities in Agra, India and to the buyers in the UK: www.cleanclothes.org/urgent/02-08-01.htm. The authorities should be asked to implement the recommendations of the fact finding team as soon as possible.
The buyers should be asked:

  • to clarify to the consumers how it is possible that this happened at one of their supplier factories

  • what steps they will undertake with respect to families of the deceased workers and with respect the injured and jobless workers and their families

  • what steps they are undertaking to ensure that the recommendations of the fact finding team are met

  • what changes they are making in their policies to prevent this from ever happening again

Recommendations of the Fact Finding Team

I. Compensation and Job

  1. The compensation to the families of the dead and the injured workers has not been calculated as per the law. Whatever compensation given as political gesture by the UP Government and the district administration has provided succour to the families; but that is clearly not enough. Compensation is not a matter of tokenism, but a right.

  2. The aspects of (a). duration of remaining injured and thereby being out of work, (b). the ability of the injured to go back to the same occupation, and (c). permanent disability have not been looked into. These aspects should be considered while working out the compensation.

  3. Compensation is not just the monetary reward. It should include assurance of job for the injured.

  4. The Administration should monitor the implementation of the promise given by the Footwear Exporters Association to provide employment to one person from the family of the workers who died in the accident.

  5. We demand that the District Magistrate prepare a comprehensive compensation package listing monetary compensation and placements of all workers.

II. Task Force

  1. The trade unions and civil society representatives should be immediately included as members of the four task forces constituted by the District Magistrate.

III. Social Security Fund for Footwear Workers

  1. The Central and State governments should take immediate steps to constitute a Social Security Fund for the footwear workers with contributions from the Manufacturers/Exporters, Government and the Workers.

  2. The concerned authorities including the labour department should evolve a mechanism for registering workers in the footwear industry of Agra at two levels: (a) at the footwear industry level and (b) at factory level.

IV. Awareness on Labour Rights and Provisions in the Factories Act, 1948

  1. A two year Programme should be developed by the labour department and the factories directorate which aims at creating awareness among the footwear industry employers on the various rights of workers and provisions of the Factories Act and the need for such safety procedures.

  2. The labour department should ensure payment of minimum wages to the workers.

V. Training Programmes

  1. The Labour Department, with the assistance of the District Administration should evolve a comprehensive in-house Training Programme for workers in the industry on various safety provisions, handling of safety equipment and emergency measures to be taken in case of sudden fires and accidents within the factories using chemicals, in particular, the footwear manufacturing units. Convergence of expertise and experience should be ensured by roping in the fire services, civil defence, St. John's Ambulance and the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) etc in implementing this programme.

VI. Responsibility of the Labour Department

  1. The State Government should immediately withdraw the controversial circular by the Chief Secretary instructing labour inspectors to seek prior permission of the District Magistrate to conduct inspections of factories.

  2. Labour Department should be made more responsible and accountable.

  3. Within the next three months the district administration should publish in public the information regarding the total number of registered footwear units in Agra and what steps have been taken for those units which were still operating unregistered. The District Magistrate should ensure periodic inspection of the factories, a time frame of which should be framed and accountability and liability for the inspections should be established.

VII. Culpability of the Guilty

  1. Proper culpability should be established and those guilty should be prosecuted to establish accountability.

  2. In the era of globalisation, in which production takes place over an international division of labour, the Mumbai based exporters and the International buyers should be considered as principal employers and their accountability and liability established.

India Committee of the Netherlands/Landelijke India Werkgroep - 10 september 2002