Bangladesh is no stranger to devastating incidents of factory fire that ruin the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people. But justice and compensation remain a far cry for the victims and their families.
Even if a court directs the authorities concerned to pay damages, such payments never see the light of day. Those accused in cases filed over different fire incidents continue to run their businesses after getting out on bail.
There are allegations that some accused are even exerting influence to cause delays in the trial process. Families of the deceased victims and those injured in the fires are leading miserable lives – with many unable to work any longer due to crippling wounds.
A number of case studies have portrayed this grim picture. Experts say those responsible for the fires must be given exemplary punishment, which will help the number of such incidents taking place in factories to decline.
Tazreen Fashion: Lives upended
A fire destroyed Tazreen Fashion factory in Ashulia on 24 November 2012, killing 112 people and injuring more than 200 others. A case was filed over the incident, but the trial process is far from over.
Police submitted a chargesheet against 13 people, including the company's managing director Delowar, on 22 December 2013, accusing them of attempted murder and causing deaths by negligence.
The case has 104 witnesses, but only eight gave depositions till 2019. The First Additional District and Sessions Judge's Court of Dhaka is now conducting the trial. All accused in the case is currently out on bail.
"The court is unable to reach the witnesses on the current or permanent addresses they had provided. The police are not arresting them even after the issuance of non-bailable warrants," Public Prosecutor Abdul Mannan Khan told The Business Standard.
On the issue, Supreme Court lawyer and rights activist ZI Khan Panna said, "The state is negligent about producing witnesses in this case. Besides, a certain quarter is using its influence to delay the trial process. This delay could prevent the victims from getting justice."
No compensation paid so far
Monowara Begum and her husband, both hailing from Ashulia, used to work at Tazreen Fashion. The fire burned her husband to death. Monowara had jumped from the 2nd floor to save herself, but it left her crippled in her legs. She now uses a crutch to move around in a limited manner.
"I did not get justice for the death of my husband, nor did I get any compensation. I am now helpless."
The company's sewing operator Mosammat Jorina had also jumped from the building because of the fire. "I am now disabled. I have not been able to work for the last nine years. The condition of many of my colleagues is the same, and none of us received any compensation," she said.
Four human rights organizations, including Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (Blast) and Ain o Salish Kendra, filed a writ in the High Court on 27 November 2012, seeking damages for the victims of the fire.
The court on 13 December the same year issued a rule seeking explanation from authorities concerned on why adequate compensation should not be paid to the deceased victims' families and the injured. It also ordered the formation of a national committee and sought a report within the following six months.
"No conclusive hearing has taken place since the High Court ruling. The government is yet to submit a report over the incident. The court did not get any information about any initiative taken to compensate the victims," said BLAST lawyer Barrister Sharmin Akter.
No shortage of examples
KTS Textile and Garments – which was located at Chattogram's BSCIC Industrial Area – burned down on 23 February 2006, killing 57 workers and injuring hundreds more. Police later filed a case over the incident, but left out the name of the owner from the chargesheet.
The trial, in this case, continues to this day. BLAST had filed a writ with the High Court in March that year seeking compensation for the victims and their families.
The court then ordered the authorities concerned, including the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), to submit a report regarding the payment of damages within the following month.
BLAST's Chattogram branch lawyer Depok Kumar Chowdhury said even after 15 years the authorities concerned did not submit any report to the High Court.
On 10 September 2016, 32 people died and more than fifty others were injured in a fire at Tongi's Tampaco Foils Ltd. Ten people were accused in a case filed over the incident, including the factory's managing director and former BNP lawmaker Mokbul Hossain.
The police are yet to submit the chargesheet in court. The High Court issued a rule seeking explanation within the following four weeks on why the victims and their families should not be paid adequate compensation.
"There has been no hearing on this matter since this rule was issued. We are trying to get a hearing," said BLAST lawyer Barrister Sharmin Akter.
From 1990 to 2021, nearly a dozen such incidents of fire occurred in factories throughout Dhaka. The situation regarding the progress of trials and payment of compensation to the victims and their families is more or less the same in nearly every case, sources have said.
Commenting on the matter, BGMEA's Vice President Md Shahidullah Azim said, "We have paid enough compensation to victims of fires in different factories, but many deny receiving any damages.
"We provided employment for those who came searching for work. Even now we have an open-door policy for the victims."
However, National Garment Workers Federation President Amirul Haque Amin said, "No worker has ever received any compensation over the fire incidents that have occurred in factories."
"The disposal of such cases falls fully under the courts' jurisdiction. Besides, the government has taken a number of initiatives to ensure that damages are paid to victims," said Mujibul Haque, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on labour and employment ministry.