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Latest Bangladesh Fire Reignites Alarms Over Safety

A fire late last week at a food processing plant in a a suburb of Dhaka that saw 52 perish has put the spotlight on worker safety in Bangladesh once again.

Employees leapt for their lives from the rooftop of the Hashem food and beverage factory as initial reports from the fire department indicate that the exits from both sides of the third floor were blocked and firemen were unable to enter and rescue workers. A probe has been set up by the Home ministry in a search for answers surrounding the blaze, which reportedly injured at least 50, and quick arrests were made of the owner of the factory and seven others.

Along with the tragic loss of lives, concerns have reemerged about factory inspections and safety enforcement in the country.

The Bangladesh government has laws in place for building safety, stepped up in the last eight years after the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, in which more than 1,100 workers lost their lives. The memory of the 111 workers who died because of blocked exits in the fire at Tazreen Fashion in the Ashulia district in November 2012 is not lost either.

Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter in the world, after China; and employs more than 4.5 million workers.

Despite security enhancement, monitoring and global funding by the Bangladesh Accord for fire and building safety (which is still operational and running on a three-month extension inked in May) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in the wake of Rana Plaza, concerns have been rife about just these kinds of lapses.

They appear to be growing.

“A total of 222 garment factories across the country had fire incidents in 2020. Sixty-six percent of these are export-oriented factories,” Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said quoting numbers from the fire service. He added that the number of injured workers in factory related accidents increased by almost 24 percent in 2020 over the previous year.

His remarks on the challenges of industrial safety in the post Accord-Alliance era at a virtual seminar on Sunday, led to further discussions about the lack of monitoring and coordination among the regulatory bodies for industrial accidents.

Moazzem told Sourcing Journal that the pandemic could partly be responsible for constraining safety inspections, as well as the transition of agencies that has been in the works since 2018. The RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) was set to take oversight over garment factories in the country earlier this year, but global unions are fighting the transition citing transparency concerns.

With the implementation of these kinds of initiatives in 2013 and running through 2018, it was expected that a process of institutionalization of industrial safety in the garment sector would be completed. In the following three years (2018-2021) the stakeholders have realized that this process is far from over and much work still needs to be done, Moazzem said.

Moazzem observed that about 22.5 percent of the 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh have still not been inspected, and as the number of accidents and those injured are increasing, steps need to be taken to ensure better monitoring.

Noting the need for proper coordination and enforcement, he pointed out that accidents have been increasing in both the earlier inspected factories as well as those that have not been registered.

“All of it needs more work, more effort, transparency and coordination,” he said.

Key to this role of monitoring is the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE).

Nasir Uddin Ahmed, Inspector General, DIFE, Ministry of Labour and Employment, emphasized the need for more human resources in order to undertake safety inspection and monitoring properly, while noting that Covid-19 had also slowed down the process.

Although DIFE has 575 inspectors appointed at this time, there are more than 90,000 factories and 440,000 non-registered plants in Bangladesh.