Setting up a factory requires the permission of the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), local municipality or union, Fire Service, and Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE). If a factory uses an excessive amount of chemicals, it has to take additional permission from the Department of Explosives.
A factory has to renew its licence every year or every two-three years while it is operating. The authorities are supposed to inspect the factories regularly to ensure the quality of life and safety of the workers.
However, despite all these requirements, no department or agency is fulfilling its responsibility for the safety at the factories, experts and officials concerned have said.
Over 100 people died in a horrific fire at Tazreen Fashion factory in Ashulia in 2012; 1,136 people died when Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 – an accident that shook the world; over 100 people died in a fires at Tampako factory in Gazipur in 2017 and at the chemical warehouses in Old Dhaka.
After hundreds of deaths in the fires at factories, the negligence of all government institutions in fulfilling their responsibilities has come up again and again.
According to the Fire Service, almost all of the 1.68 lakh incidents of fire occurred in the last ten years have been caused by negligence of the authorities concerned.
"The companies engaged in ensuring factory safety have a manpower and infrastructure crisis, but they also do not carry out their duties properly," said Brig Gen (retd) Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah, a member of the National Health and Safety Council and former director general of Fire Service.
"The garment factories comply with the regulations under the buyers' pressure, but that is not happening in other factories," he added.
Major (retd) Shakil Newaz, former director of the Fire Service and Civil Defense, thinks that no department had worked on the Shezan juice factory that caught fire in Narayanganj.
He said, "The building was faulty from the very beginning. The architect who designed the building, the one who passed the design, the one who licensed the design, the one who paid the insurance for the design, the banks which lent a few thousand crores on this nonsensical plan are all responsible for the fire."
"How did the city corporation give the business trade license in such a defective building? How did the deputy commissioner approve it? It should be investigated whether the factory owners' association, the Fire Service, and Ministry of Labour was turning a blind eye to the irregularities at the factory," he said.
The building was supposed to have a state-of-the-art fire hydrant or sprinkler system, but the owner did not install them there, said sources.
Irregularities, manpower shortage weaken Department of Inspection for Factories
After the Rana Plaza accident, the government strengthened the DIFE and Establishments under the pressure of various development partners and organisations, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The government increased its manpower from 314 to 993 by creating organisational structure. But it was the only reform that has been done. After that the organisation did not run at normal speed. At present, its manpower is reduced to only 321 officers from inspector to higher level.
The DIFE has already informed the higher authorities that it needs 20,000 staff members for the 90 lakh companies operating across the country.
They have submitted the demand for 3,500 staff in 2019 as per the instructions of the labour ministry. The demand letter also recommended increasing the number of its offices from 21 to 64 – one in each district.
Aside from these, the DIFE is in dire straits due to the irregularities in the promotion and transfer of officers and employees.
The DIFE officials said 15 of the 27 posts of deputy inspector general are vacant. There are 178 posts of assistant inspector general (AIG), against which only 69 are recruited. There are 364 posts of labour inspectors, where 231 are working.
Moreover, the department's work is not progressing much as many of these posts were filled up with people who did not have the necessary qualifications, but were chosen by some powerful individuals.
According to the office of the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the DIFE, the officers at the bottom of the seniority list are carrying out duties in the heavily industrialised districts like Dhaka, Gazipur, Chattogram and Narayanganj. There is no transparency in the process of promotion at the department.
On condition of anonymity, a labour inspector said, "Our job has no future. We are not being promoted. The government appointed about 200 inspectors from the 33rd BCS. Seeing the uncertain future, many of these meritorious officers have left the department."
The DIFE officials also pointed out the weakness of the Labour Act, 2006. According to them, the provisions of the Labour Act are not strict and punishment like Jail and fine is insignificant. A person violating the Labour Law is liable to a maximum of six months in jail and up to a Tk25,000 fine.
The DIFE has the jurisdiction to sue and close down a factory if it considers teh factory risky after inspection.
However, a DIFE official said, "Since I joined in 2015, the department has not closed any factory yet. After giving notice to the risky factory, it is resolved by the agreement of various parties. If there is a case in the labour court, it goes on for years. Sometimes the culprits get very little punishment."
There are 10 Labour Courts in the country. There are 23,000 cases in the appellate tribunal of these courts.
According to the Labour Act, 2006, the DIFE under the Ministry of Labour and Employment is responsible for overseeing the legal rights, facilities, health and safety of workers in any factory, establishment and shop, including the readymade garments factories.
According to the DIFE, they visited 43,000 companies in the 2018-19 fiscal year before Covid-19 pandemic hit. In the previous year, they visited 26,000 institutions.
However, they have limited their inspection activities in the last one and half years due to the pandemic. Their activities now end with a few brief inspections on the quality of life of the workers.
In normal times the DIFE officials asked 100 questions regarding various sections and rules of the Labour law including terms of employment, juvenile workers, maternity welfare, safety, hygiene, wages, and working hours. Currently, the DIFE conducts special inspections, when they have asked 16 questions to the employees to find out if they followed health safety measures. These questions do not include a factory's fire safety issues.
Soumen Barua, a junior officer, is the AIG (safety) at Narayanganj office of the DIFE. There are 16 AIG posts in Narayanganj, but only six are recruited. There are 25 posts of labour inspectors, but 14 officers are employed.
When asked if the Shezan juice factory was under regular supervision, Soumen Barua said there was no regular supervision due to lack of manpower. The factory where the fire broke out was monitored once in June. The factory authorities were also notified regarding the irregularities there.
"We do not have enough inspectors. The Department of Explosives is facing a crisis of manpower and infrastructure," said KM Abdus Salam, secretary of the labour ministry.
According to the Explosives Act, 1884, approval has to be obtained from the Department of Explosives for the manufacture, possession, use, sale, transportation and import of any type of combustible and explosives substances.
Abul Kalam Azad, chief inspector at the Department of Explosives, said, "We need offices in important districts of the country, but the Department of Explosives is running with only five offices including the head office."
"Besides, we need over 2,000 staff, but there are only 110 employees. The entire department has only one vehicle to inspect the factories," he continued.
"In addition to the requirements for expanding the number of offices, a proposal has recently been sent to the Ministry of Public Administration to recruit 1,115 new staff," he added.
No license has been issued for setting up a chemical warehouse in the six-storey building of Hashem Food and Beverage in Rupganj area of Narayanganj, the explosives directorate said after a preliminary inspection.
Abul Kalam said Hashem Foods did not seek approval for the design to set up the chemical warehouse inside the factory. However, the company recently took permission to import extinguishers.
Manpower crisis in Fire Service too
Of the 20 major tasks of the Fire Service and Civil Defence, the department is responsible for issuing fire safety clearance to multi-storied buildings, warehouses, workshops and ensure the entities have implemented the clearance conditions properly.
The approval has to be obtained from the department immediately after setting up a factory. And the owner also has to renew the licence per year. If the building is at risk or there is no fire extinguishing system, fire service can revoke the licence, file a case against the factory owner or declare the factory risky for use.
But a severe manpower shortage pulls back the department.
Brigadier General Md Sajjad Hossain, director general of fire service, said 11,000 fire service staffers for a total of 18 crore people and 90 lakh business entities is inadequate.
"We are currently expanding our manpower and enhancing the capacity under 156 projects. There is a proposal to recruit 25,000 staff as the UNDP is working with us. We are doing good," he said.
All shrugging off the responsibility
Setting up a factory requires Rajdhani UnnayanKartripakkha(Rajuk), local municipality or union parishad approval. Experts said the Hashem Foods building had flawed construction design in the first place.
Any place at a building supposed to have stairs within 23 metres, while the stairs at Hashem Foods was at 70-80 metres away. The building had two exit points though it was supposed to have at least four.
Of the two, one exit at the north side of the building was blocked by goods and machines. It did not have a fire extinguishing system either.
For the building, the public offices are now shifting the responsibility to others.
Rajuk said it is not concerned about the design approval since the building was constructed a long time ago.
Tarabo Municipality Chief Executive Officer Nazrul Islam said they are also not concerned about the building since it is located outside of the municipality.
There was no one available at the local union parishad for comment.