Although the issue of ensuring workplace safety in the readymade garment industry was emphasised after the Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen fashion fire, other industrial factories were mostly left out, many businessmen and labour leaders have alleged.
As a result, factories other than RMG ones are seeing recurring accidents and loss of lives. Also, there are allegations that a section of inspectors take bribes for not inspecting the factories properly and not taking proper measures over breach of workplace safety.
The DIFE officials, however, maintained that the shortage of manpower is their main setback while the inspectors are given less authority by the provisions of the related law.
The issue of the shoddy state of industrial inspection came to the fore following the collapse of Rana Plaza on 24 April 2013.
Hazardous workplace conditions of RMG factories of Bangladesh drew flak around the world. Following the widespread criticism, various steps were taken to enhance inspection of the factories of the export-oriented RMG sector. Two organisations of international buyers-- Accord and Alliance— worked to this end while the government’s inspection department was also included in the process. On the following year, the derectorate was upgraded to a department naming it the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) by increasing its manpower. Around 400 employees are currently employed in the department among 993 approved by the authorities. Of the 400 manpower, 312 are inspectors.
The inspectors are mostly used for inspection of RMG factories following the upgradation. Inspection of other factories, organisations and shops was increased later as a result of recurrence of accidents in other sectors. There are separate checklists for inspection. As per the checklists, inspectors can monitor if a factory has enough staircases, emergency exits, fire detecting and extinguishing systems, if the factory has flammable substances and if it employs child workforces.
An inspector of DIFE, on condition of anonymity, said there is a specific target of inspection of factories for every inspector. Reaching that target along with taking punitive action by filing cases within a short time is tough. Moreover, the inspectors cannot fine more than Tk 25,000 as per the existing law. Influential businesspersons often create obstacles and even threaten the officials concerned during the inspection.
On the other hand, two businessmen of Narayanganj alleged that the renewal of factory licenses requires extra money. Many factory owners bribe inspectors to avoid the hassle of inspection. Even approval of common service rules requires extra money. Sometimes, inspectors prepare reports by talking with factory authorities without even going to the factory.
DIFE’s joint director general Md Mostafizur Rahman told Prothom Alo that 312 inspectors are too insufficient for inspecting 90,000 factories and organisations.
A proposal to increase the department’s workforce to 1,791 has been submitted to the ministry, he said adding that manpower crisis would end once the proposal is approved.
He brushed aside allegations against the inspectors.
Although this high official referred to manpower crisis, the inspectors in 2019-20 fiscal year had inspected 37,327 factories, shops and organisations. Among these, 3,887 are RMG factories while 14,832 are other factories. A total of 16,964 factories were inspected in the first six months of 2020-21 fiscal year. Of them, 6,416 had many anomalies.
Nazma Akhter, general secretary of Bangladesh Labour Congress, told Prothom Alo that DIFE inspectors fine smaller factories but do not inspect big ones that much. In many cases, factories bribe inspectors for a positive report.
He also said Hashem Foods factory did not maintain any compliance in construction and operation.
Not only DIFE, other government agencies that gave approval to the factory should be brought to justice.
According to Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS), as many as 169 workers died in accidents in 99 factories in the last three and a half years.
Labour law expert Jafrul Hasan told Prothom Alo that the provision of punishment against accused person or organisation is trivial while implementation of the law is a bigger challenge.
Inspection can be more efficient with the existing number of inspectors, Jafrul observed.
*This story, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Galib Ashraf.