The death of five workers at a Bogura-based plastic factory on Tuesday's fire echoes the earlier horrors of a similar incident at Hashem Foods Factory in Rupganj in July this year where 52 lives were lost. But this is not only a matter of death counts, these incidents have continued to expose severe institutional failures in safeguarding lives and handling logistics.
Some factory owners invest almost all of their finances in acquiring primary equipment necessary for production. They invest more for extended production. But the funds designated for the safety of workers' lives are much lower in comparison.
On the other hand, the regulatory bodies responsible for monitoring and implementing workplace safety rules neglect their duties. They claim manpower shortage as an excuse. As a consequence, we continue to lose our dear ones in factory accidents.
Due to our growing industrial diversity, Bangladesh is not merely a ready-made garments producer at present. However, and unfortunately, workplace safety is mostly concentrated in the RMG sector due to the obligations in international compliance. This proves to be problematic.
Several statistics reveal that factory disasters cause more deaths in the non-RMG sectors.
The Bogura fire incident again reminds us that fire safety coverage should not be limited in the industrial hubs.
Factory safety protocols are currently prominent in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Chattogram. This should be widened amid the expanding industrialisation in the country.
As a result of the devastating 2012 Tazreen Fashion fire and 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, RMG factories now tend to comply with the safety standards but only when there is pressure from foreign buyers and international watchdogs.
Thanks to the lax supervision and impunity, factory owners rarely see the importance of improving their fire safety systems. Investigations both in the Bogura and Rupganj factory fire incidents found that there were no fire safety measures despite housing inflammable substances.
The formation of the Accord and Alliance compelled most of the apparel makers to remodel their factories to conform to the global standards of fire, electrical and structural safety. However, the non-RMG factories, mainly those catering to the local market, are not complying with the safety standards due to a lack of supervision.
Since 2018, fire incidents and deaths in the RMG sector have reduced remarkably. But in comparison, fire-related deaths in the non-RMG sector have grown alarmingly. A study by the non-government organisation Safety and Rights reveals that at least 697 workers have died in 453 non-RMG factory disasters, mostly fire incidents, in the last 10 years (till July 2021).
Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) executive council member Md Shakil Akhter Chowdhury, also a trade union organiser, believes that the existing fire safety rules are not merely industrial hub-centric. Industry owners as well as workplace safety regulators and civil defence authorities should follow the rules wherever they are based.
"Concentration on RMG sector regarding workplace safety is discriminatory," he said.
The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) is responsible for monitoring and implementing workplace safety rules. Every time a factory fire happens, the DIFE officials provide a common statement citing a lack of manpower in the department.
News reports suggest that DIFE's workforce is half of the approved 933 posts. The existing manpower is inadequate for supervising the country's 56,987 non-RMG factories.
Workplace safety campaigners have long raised the issue that people responsible for noncompliance and fire incidents seldom face legal actions. Thanks to the lax supervision and impunity, factory owners rarely see the importance of improving their fire safety systems. Investigations both in the Bogura and Rupganj factory fire incidents found that there were no fire safety measures despite housing inflammable substances.
According to DIFE, every factory inspector shoulders a specific target of inspection of factories.
Some DIFE inspectors said earlier that reaching the target fixed upon them along with taking legal actions against the offenders within such a short time is difficult. Moreover, the existing law does not permit the inspectors to fine the offenders more than Tk25,000 which seems much lower when considering the severity of the offence. Often influential businessmen create obstacles and even threaten the officials concerned during the inspection.
However, civil society representatives think that before increasing the manpower of DIFE, the government should review whether the department and its existing manpower can accurately inspect the sites. Several studies found that influential businesses, whether it be small or large factories, often manipulate the inspection report with the help of corrupt inspectors. Independent campaigners of workplace safety thus demand accountability from DIFE.
Some businessmen have earlier alleged that the renewal of factory licenses from DIFE requires extra money. Even approval of common service rules requires extra money. Many factory owners chose to avoid the hassle by bribing the inspectors. This practice should be stopped with strict monitoring and accountability must be upheld.
Few years ago, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina instructed the officials concerned to bring all the factories under some exclusive industrial zones to check unplanned industrialisation and environmental hazards. This initiative, if implemented completely, will certainly ensure zone-based safety measures.
For example, the export processing zones (EPZ) have their own arrangement for fire extinguishing, meaning that the planned industrialisation will include a fire control system. But unplanned industrialisation creates more opportunities for mismanagement.
"The initiative is praiseworthy. But it will take time and face many challenges. Until all the factories are brought under cluster management, the regulatory authorities must ensure safety at the workplace. This is mandatory because every life is valuable," BILS executive council member Shakil says.
Amid the expansion of industrialisation, the need for the presence of a fire brigade unit is intensifying. Currently, there are 435 fire stations in the country. The Prime Minister has instructed the authorities concerned to scale up the fire safety measures so that each upazila (sub-district) has at least one fire station for civil defence.
According to Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) authority, the department has been implementing a development project to construct 48 new fire stations in Dhaka division, 50 in Rajshahi, Rangpur, Mymensingh, and Sylhet divisions; and 57 in Chattogram, Khulna, and Barishal divisions.
The widening of FSCD coverage is a positive change. Now the country needs responsible supervision from the factory inspection authority and also the sincerity of factory owners. Otherwise the unabated factory disasters will not only cause casualties but will also hamper the country's industrial diversity. Less investment or no investment in workplace safety saves the owner some money for a while, sure, but accidents like an inferno will certainly make the owner bankrupt.