Gloves of deceased workers on the 3rd floor of fire-ravaged Hashem Food and Beverage Factory in Rupganj, Narayanganj on 10 July 2021.
Dinar Mahmud

The country has been grappling with the Covid crunch for almost one and a half years. On top of that, the country has been seeing the tragic loss of lives caused by numerous natural and man-made disasters, leaving uncountable families in deep crisis. And on 8 July in Narayanganj, more than 50 workers were killed in a horrific fire at the Hashem Food and Beverage factory. It took almost 24 hours for 18 units of the fire brigade to extinguish the fire. By then, the fire snatched away 52 lives.

At least 60 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in separate fires in the capital Dhaka and Narayanganj in the past two weeks. Most of them were factory workers. While the day-to-day life of the people has been hit hard by the pandemic, such unwarranted mishaps like fires and building collapses has exacerbated the sufferings. General workers are victims of rash decisions taken by the authorities.

Aiming to prevent any recurrence of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire, the Department of Factory and Establishment Inspection (DIFE) under the Ministry of Labour and Employment, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) jointly adopted a National Tripartite Plan of Action (NTPA) in 2016. In 2018, the Remediation Co-ordination Cell (RCC) was formed to coordinate with these organisations. Sixty specialised engineers from the government’s Corrective Action Plan (CAP) implementation project were working to prevent accidents at more than 1,500 high-risk garment factories outside the foreign buyer’s association RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) and Nirapon.

Under the CAP implementation project, the government already possesses skilled engineers. In order to ensure a safe working environment, not only readymade garments, but also all types of factories should be brought under the supervision of RCC for long term permanent solutions

Engineers under CAP implementation project ensure professional safety of garment factories based in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Chattogram district by overseeing fragile infrastructure, risky electrical systems, proper firefighting systems, factory design drawings, approval of the supervisory authorities and so on. Under their close supervision, the RCC has been able to maintain zero casualties in the last three years in 1,500 ready-made garment factories even amid the pandemic.

The number of factories assigned to RCC under the ‘National Initiative’ is 1549. Of these, 648 factories are located in Dhaka district, 299 in Narayanganj, 372 in Gazipur, 193 in Chattorgam and 37 in other districts.

As of June 2020, a total of 371 factories have made 50 per cent progress or less, of the proposed remediation works by engineers, 67 factories have made progress in 50 to 70 per cent progress and more than 70 per cent progress has been made in 111 factories. Of them, 15 factories have completed 100 per cent remediation work on various safety issues, out of which one factory has completed 100 per cent remediation work in all fields. As a result of regular inspections by RCC engineers and intensive supervision of DIFE, 620 factories were forced to close for failing to show progress in remediation works while 104 factories had to relocate.

Relatives of workers cry outside as fire rages at Hashem Food and Beverage Factory in Rupganj, Narayanganj on 9 July 2021.
Dinar Mahmud

According to DIFE’s Annual Report 2019-20, the overall progress of the remediation work of the current project (as of June, 2020) is about 40 per cent, which has been determined only by considering the ongoing factories under the ‘national initiative’. As a result of RCC’s inspection, 620 factories under the national initiative have been shut down and safety in the factories has been ensured. Considering all factors, the overall progress is about 60 per cent.

Accidents in factories can be prevented by taking proper precautions. Such measures, including verified approval by the appropriate authorities, ensuring proper emergency response, and raising workers’ awareness, are key to factory accident prevention.

As per a report of Prothom Alo, the factory building of Hashem Foods Limited in Rupganj, Narayanganj is housed in a six-storey building. Each floor is 35,000 square feet. There were only two staircases in the whole building.

A building of this size needs to have at least four staircases or exit arrangements. That is why such a large number of workers could not escape during the fire, leaving more than 50 workers killed – something which could have been easily avoided.

Prothom Alo quoted the fire service as saying that if there were enough staircases in compliance with the building code, there would not have been so many deaths.

There are innumerable unsafe factory buildings across the country which can be brought under proper supervision to ensure their overall safety and safe working environment. The only solution to prevent such accidents is to supervise the safety measures of the factories with trained and specialised manpower. Under the CAP implementation project, the government already possesses skilled engineers. In order to ensure a safe working environment, not only readymade garments, but also all types of factories should be brought under the supervision of RCC for long term permanent solutions. However, the work of the organisation has been suspended recently due to complications related to the duration and allocation of funds for the project. Remediation works have been halted, too.

There is no alternative to ensuring safe working environment in the factory to ensure a labour-friendly working environment and increase productivity. Otherwise, this country of immense potential will be transformed into a country of uncountable accidents which will affect the country’s industrial and export sectors. The image of the country will be tarnished in the international arena as well.

* Munzil Hassan is an engineer (fire) and Amit Paul is an engineer (structural) at CAP implementation project.

*The piece, originally written in Bangla and published in Prothom Alo Bangla online, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat