Urgency of industrial safety for non-RMG enterprises, workers

Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Salay Mostafa and Shah Md Ahsan Habib | Friday, 21 January 2022

Although industrial accidents have escalated in number over the recent years, the matter of industrial safety in non-RMG businesses remains unaddressed. The recent tragedy at a food-processing plant in Narayanganj, which left more than 52 people dead and over 50 others injured, has raised safety worries in non-RMG businesses. Since the factory-fire incident on July 8, 2021, the national dailies have reported a total of 82 different sorts of accidents: about one every two days. The majority of these mishaps, causing 52 casualties, are caused by fire. The rest include electrical, boiler explosions, and other associated difficulties, claiming the lives of 167 workers/people and injuring another 256.

The fatalities and injuries mostly occur as a result of fire-related mishaps. And such accidents occur most frequently in housing, hospitals, markets, and commercial and industrial establishments.

Taking corrective action in non-RMG enterprises is a complicated matter. Unlike the readymade garment or RMG sector, which operates on a worldwide scale, the majority of non-RMG businesses operate on a domestic scale. Domestic supply chains frequently violate codes of behaviour governing workplace safety and labour rights. An initiative for industrial safety measures under the overall coordination of the BIDA was launched promptly (16 July 2021) in the aftermath of the Hashem Food catastrophe in Narayanganj. A 24-member group has been constituted to identify potential safety hazards and to direct competent agencies to take immediate action.

A monitoring programme spearheaded by civil society on industrial safety in non-RMG firms and establishments highlights the openness, accountability, and efficiency with which safety measures are implemented throughout time. To this effect, a civil-society initiative called 'Monitoring the Post-Rana Plaza Developments' was initiated in 2013, the primary goal of which is to monitor the status of industrial- safety measures being implemented by various governmental agencies in non-RMG factories and facilities.

Bangladesh has seen a significant increase in the number of industrial firms other than export-oriented textile and garment (T&G) enterprises over the previous two decades. The industries with the biggest concentration of establishments in non-RMG enterprises/establishments include food processing (10,782, 32 percent), brickfield (5611, 14.2 per cent), and textile (4323: 10.9 per cent). There are over 12,000 commercial establishments in the city, which include offices, hospitals and clinics, hotels and motels, and educational institutions.

Numerous non-RMG sectors, such as leather, jute, and agro-processing, are establishing themselves as export-oriented. Among these are leather and leather-related products, agricultural products, and jute and jute-related products. These sectors exported approximately $942 million, $1,028 million, and $1,161 million in 2021 respectively.

Non-RMG factories do not appear to be particularly active in establishing safety committees in accordance with the BLA. As of July 2021, 75.2 percent of RMG factories have safety committees, compared to only 6.7 percent of non-RMG enterprises. This  points to substandard working conditions in non-RMG factories where workers face a variety of safety and labour-related issues.

During 2015-2020 period, FSCD and DIFE reported increasing industrial accidents primarily due to an increase in mishaps at homes/kitchens, cowhouses, and businesses. Some sectors, however,  saw a decrease in the incidence in 2020 compared to 2015, maybe, as a result of economic activity being halted owing to covid (shops, factories, offices, hospitals). Fire Service and Civil Defence estimated the value of assets and other property lost and the value of property rescued in each fire occurrence.  Based on these statistics for the period 2015-2020,  the highest loss-recovery ratios are seen in stores, bazaars, homes, and jute warehouses, indicating that there are more losses than recoveries. There is no significant change in the loss-recovery ratio, indicating a lack of improvement in recovery management over time. When it comes to industrial factory accidents, the majority occur in Dhaka and Chattogram, with an average of 577 and 220 incidents each year, respectively.

The FSCD was unable to address all reported fire occurrences, thus leaving a portion of the incidents unaddressed. While Dhaka and Chattagram are believed to have the largest number of fire accidents, for the largest concentrations of enterprises in and around the capital- and commercial-capital cities, around one-third of all incidents remain unresolved by the public authorities (FSCD).

Accidents are dealt with more effectively in the Mymensingh and Khulna divisions - approximately 94 per cent in both divisions.

The Department for Inspection of Factories and Enterprises or DIFE collects data on workplace accidents and injuries - a total of 763 incidents were recorded in the last five years. A total of 1345 injuries were reported, 806 (60 per cent) of them classified as 'fatal,' while 539 (40 per cent) having resulted in death. While the number of events is on the decrease, the death rate remains high at (103) 19.1 per cent, as of the fiscal year 2020, compared to 91 (16.9 per cent) in 2016. The largest number of accidents reported in FY17, at 401 (53.7 per cent).

The inspection level varies for several categories of non-RMG establishments. Jute mills, gas stations, tobacco, hatcheries, electrical/ electronics, and cold- storage facilities all require the highest level of inspection.

A substantial portion of businesses in several sectors - steel rerolling, printing presses, and packaging  remains uninspected. In many sectors, no follow-up inspections were pursued. The DIFE brings charges against factories for varying degrees of non-compliance. Cases filed against non-RMG firms and businesses are an all-time high. The biggest number of instances occurred in 2020, owing to complaints about a variety of non-compliances, including irregular wage payment, layoff, and retrenchment during the covid epidemic. Cases involving child labour suggest that child labour is a concern for a large number of factories/establishments.

On July 16, 2021, the government announced the formation of a 24-member committee headed by BIDA to detect safety risks and to issue requisite directions to responsible entities for the implementation of necessary measures. Several subcommittees have been constituted to carry out the  required steps. A target was set to inspect a total of 5,000 factories by 108 teams over a three-month period from October to December 2021 where each inspection team consisted of 11 members, including representatives from DIFE, PWD, DoE, the Department of Explosives, FSCD, the Chief Inspector of Boilers, and the Office of the Chief Electrical Inspector. 

Initially, a total of 1,900 factories were identified for inspection in four major clusters (Dhaka, Chattogram, Gazipur, and Narayanganj). The inspection is not progressing satisfactorily, as of 10 January 2022, despite the fact that it was intended to be completed by December 2021. A total of 108 team members had got training by 9 January 2022, and as of 10 January 2022, just 875 factories had been inspected, representing only 17.5 per cent of the targeted factories.

According to the KIIs with the DoE, the factories located in old Dhaka were desperate to improve their working environment because the working environment was unsuitable for operation. The majority of factories lacked a proper effluent -treatment facility for liquid and solid waste materials.  Plastic-related factories' (pipe fittings and other toiletry fittings) attempt to develop effluent treatment for liquid was found to be ineffective.

Several concerning issues have been identified as a result of the BIDA (Bangladesh Investment Development Authority) initiative: firstly, the initiative encountered 'initial phase' challenges because this activity is new to BIDA and the coordinating mechanism is new to associated organizations. Moreover, this is a public-private- partnership initiative with both positive and negative aspects. Several instances of mismanagement were identified during the FSCD inspection process. In addition, the overall progress of the inspection was slow in both FSCD and DoE.  Human resource shortage was found to be a challenge particularly at DoE, the boiler authority, and even at DIFE. Finally, a shortage of transportation was identified as a major impediment to the inspection.

Industrial safety in the non-RMG sector has deteriorated consistently as a result of a lack of safety measures addressing structural, fire, and electrical hazards. Inadequate monitoring and enforcement of various compliance standards by various public bodies contributed to the developments. Moreover, there are weaknesses in fire, electrical, structural, boiler, and environmental safety laws, rules, and acts. Factory owners/management have a limited interest in investing in safety measures. Workers are unaware of safety concerns, and the majority of non-RMG factories lack safety committees. There is no pressure from stakeholders such as consumers, workers, and CSOs to ensure compliance standards. Inadequate punitive measures under various laws, rules, and acts (e.g., Boiler Act 1923, Explosive Act 1884) make factory management hesitant to implement proper compliance measures.

The BIDA-led process encountered a variety of operational difficulties, which include difficulty in coordinating between various offices responsible for the factory, issues with time management by officials of DC offices in various districts participating in inspection, officials of DoE and PWD had other departmental responsibilities and were unable to adhere to the inspection schedule, excessive work pressure on officials of the department of explosives and office of the chief boiler due to a shortage of human resources.  In some places, a single official serves as a member of eight to ten inspection teams.

It is crucial for BIDA to involve the ILO in the implementation process, given the ILO's extensive experience with industrial safety issues. The appropriate plan of work might be prepared and implemented in accordance with the ILO's proposal for short,- medium-and long-term activities.

BIDA should ensure that all private sectors targeted for inspection are on the same page in terms of maintaining the inspection's quality, providing appropriate inspection support and extending cooperation during the process of implementing the proposed measure. FSCD needs to report the fire incidents separately for chemical, plastic, textile, and aluminum sectors as most of the blazes in non-RMG enterprises took place in these sectors. FSCD should focus more on major industrial clusters (especially in Dhaka and Chattogram). FSCD should increase their operation and inspection in hill-tract and highland areas. The Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) must be active in inspecting and monitoring non-RMG enterprises and must have the required people and logistical resources. The Department of Environment should hire additional inspectors/officers and give appropriate training to ensure proper inspection. The transportation issue should be handled as soon as feasible to allow for prompt completion of the initial inspection. The DoE should conduct routine inspections of non-RMG factories and educate businessmen about environmental costs and damage. 

Considering the deterioration in industrial safety in the non-RMG sector  as a result of lack of safety measures addressing structural, fire, and electrical hazards, it is inevitable to take measures to improve the situation.


Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem is Research Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue; [email protected]; Salay Mostafa is a Programme Associate of the Centre for Policy Dialogue; and Dr Shah Md Ahsan Habib is Professor, Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management (BIBM)