Workplace deaths increase in non-RMG industries

Fire at Hashem Foods Ltd in Narayanganj on 8 July
File Photo

In Bangladesh, workplace deaths have increased in the non-RMG industries like food manufacturing, packaging and chemical warehouses.

An analysis on available data from Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) as well as Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) has indicated the trend.

According to Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE), there are 61,769 factories of various products including ready-made garments, plastic, chemicals and food manufacturing.

BILS keeps record of at least 14 industrial disasters that took life of 1,553 workers between 2005 and 2017. The Rana Plaza collapse solely caused death of 1,136 workers.

During the period, only two non-RMG factories, of packaging, caught fire, leaving 47 workers dead: 13 workers of Styrofoam Package in 2015 and 34 of Tampaco Foils in 2016. Packages of RMG products and other items were produced in the two factories.

At least 168 workers died in factory fires between 2018 and 7 July 2021. Of them 167 workers were from non-RMG sector. The fire incidents injured more than 300 non-RMG workers and at least 40 in the RMG sector.

Explaining the reasons behind the increasing trend of death in non-RMG factories, Professor Mustafizur Rahman, a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), told Prothom Alo, “The monitoring capacity of the regulatory bodies has not been developed along with the development of Bangladesh’s economy and industries. Safety at RMG units has improved in the aftermath of Rana Plaza collapse. Foreign brands and buyers as well as the government have contributed to this improvement. However, the industries producing products for local markets lack workplace safety. Hashem Foods at Rupganj is an example. Such of the incidents will further endanger the workers’ safety as well as discourage foreign investment.”

In this photograph taken on 24 April 2013, Bangladeshi civilian volunteers assist in rescue operations after an eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka

As the regulatory body with a workforce of 400, DIFE is liable to inspect the industrial units and monitor implementation of the laws in there. The department also gives licences to new factories and renew licence of the existing ones.

Several officers of the department, when asked about the lax monitoring, pointed shortage of their manpower as an excuse. They admitted that the department fails to implement domestic and international labour laws at the factories.

Talking about the issue, additional secretary at the labour wing under the labour and employment ministry, Md Rezaul Haque told Prothom Alo that the ministry has been trying to bring all the non-RMG factories under proper regulation. The factory inspection department is increasing its authority and workforce. “We hope the occurrence of industrial disaster will decrease in the near future,” he said.

Bangladesh Trade Union Centre general secretary Wajedul Islam points out that the non-RMG workers barely can access their rights to trade union.

Citing that the Hashem Foods workers were not duly compensated, Wajedul demands that the families of the deceased workers be compensated with the workers’ future work-life expectancies, following ILO charters.

Firefighters stand inside a Hashem Foods Ltd factory as burnt items are seen after a fire broke out, in Rupganj, Narayanganj district, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, 9 July, 2021

The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse brought the workplace safety at RMG sector to the forefront, particularly because of a tremendous pressure from the foreign buyers and global labour rights bodies.

Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh–a platform of more than 190 mostly Europe-based RMG retailers, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety–a US-led collaboration to improve safety measures in RMG sector, and ILO geared up factory inspection in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and other public and private organisations started to provide technical support to improve workers’ safety at RMG factories.

All the unplanned RMG factories in and outside of Dhaka had been reconstructed as disaster-resilient. Many factories with fragile structures were closed down. Through the precautionary measures, workplace safety at the RMG factories improved.

Former BUET teacher of civil engineering, Professor Mujibur Rahman, also an advisor to Alliance, told Prothom Alo some structural as well as management reformation have made the RMG factories disaster-resilient. On the other hand, many non-RMG factories are still operating poorly. Flammable substances are stocked and power transformers are installed at the working places. That’s why a sparkling causes infernos.

In a dialogue organised by CPD on Sunday, it was revealed that around 22 per cent of RMG factories were still out of proper inspection.

“Factory owners seldom emphasise safety of workers. If the trend continues unabated, more industrial disasters may occur in future,” Mujibur Rahman said.

*This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman.