It is generally acknowledged that accountability of the executive, judicial and legislative organs of the state towards citizens and the constitution is deficient in many developing countries of the world including Bangladesh. This is all the truer where governance is tainted by authoritarianism and the preferences or interests of the masses are considered subservient to those of vested quarters who are viewed as critical to the regimes' survival. This reality once again came to light recently surrounding the deaths of over fifty innocent workers including children and women in a factory-fire at Hashem Foods Ltd. of Narayanganj.
Interestingly, as many as 9 writ cases were filed in the High Court Division of the Supreme Court over the past 11 years centring on the perishing of 124 residents during the Nimtali chemical fire in Old Dhaka (2010), deaths of 112 workers due to fire at Ashulia'sTazreen Fashions Limited in 2012 and 39 workers at Tampaco Foils Ltd. of Gazipur in 2016, as well as deaths of 71 residents at Churihatta of Old Dhaka due to chemical explosion in 2019 and 34 residents at Talla area of Narayanganj because of fire from gas leakage last year. The High Court issued orders along with rules in 6 of the cases, while hearing of 3 writ cases remain suspended. Although the victims got some immediate relief from the High Court orders, decision regarding compensation still remains pending in the absence of verdicts.
Apart from the factory owners and managers who had direct responsibility for workers' safety, the Department of Inspection for Factories & Establishments (DIFE) under the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Office of the Chief Inspector of Boilers (OCIB) under the Ministry of Industries, and the Department of Fire Service and Civil Defence (DFSCD) under the Ministry of Home Affairs have supervisory responsibility for ensuring hazard-free environment in factories. Although the latter now possesses some modern equipment as well as skilled personnel, most of these are kept at Mirpur station of capital Dhaka, and so cannot reach remote spots swiftly due to distance or poor communication network. The OCIB is also found to be negligent while granting permission for import of combustible chemicals, as it is their responsibility to verify whether the substances are stored in safe places.
Another aspect that has created uncertainty regarding the robustness of factory buildings is that the union councils have been authorised by the government to sanction construction plans in areas under their jurisdiction. But these councils do not have engineers or architects at their disposal, and consequently tragedies like the Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013 that caused the deaths of 1,136 hapless workers often occur. Besides, as evident from media reports, the building of Hashem Foods where the fire broke out was in fact a central storage depot - not meant for use as factory.
Alongside factory authorities, the DIFE also have a responsibility to ensure that collapsible gates in factories are kept open, so that workers can escape if there is any fire. But keeping those locked appears to have become a norm leading to accidents like those at Tazreen Fashions as well as the recent fire at Hashem Foods. DIFE cannot avoid responsibility for preventing these clear violations of rules, and the owners and managers must be held accountable for their lapses. Comprising representatives from the government, the employers' associations and trade unions, the National Industrial Health and Safety Council also has a role in ensuring workers' safety. But although it is supposed to meet every three months, the practice has been discontinued lately. As the owners are usually powerful both financially and politically, it is ultimately the responsibility of the political government to rein in their waywardness.
According to official estimates, there are now 61 thousand 769 factories in the country in various sectors. Although it was previously the RMG factories where most fire accidents occurred, the situation changed since 2018 due to safety improvements made in the sector. It is now mostly the non-RMG factories engaged in food processing, footwear and packaging, as well as chemical warehouses where such incidents take place. The DFSCD had conducted a survey of 5,207 factory buildings in 2020, and among them only 502 or 10 per cent were found to be safe. As many as 23 per cent buildings were highly risky and 67 per cent risky for fire hazards. Another survey conducted during 2019 found 98 per cent of markets, 92 per cent of educational institutions, 91 per cent of hospitals and clinics, 75 per cent of banks, and 87 per cent of residential hotels to be risky or very risky. But unfortunately, most of the recommendations put forward by DFSCD for improving safety are mostly ignored by the concerned parties.
Based on existing laws and rules of Bangladesh, a checklist has been prepared by the DIFE that identified 67 types of risks for fire hazards, 74 electrical risks, 7 structural and 18 other risks in factories. But a survey by the organization has revealed a precarious scenario with regard to adherence to this checklist for curbing fire hazards in factories. According to its findings, 60 per cent of the surveyed factories did not fulfil the conditions for reducing fire hazards. There were structural risks in about 15 per cent of the factories, and 50 per cent deficiency in electrical safety was observed on an average in surveyed factories. Besides, many factories lack fire alarm system, as well as sufficient equipment for dousing fire. Alternative stairways for exit of workers are also missing in many. The Hashem Foods factory also lacked fire alarm system, smoke detectors, or emergency exits for labourers.
It appears that the supervisory bodies of the government currently remain satisfied with sanctioning certificates or permissions, but do not undertake rigorous inspections or strict enforcement of laws and rules. Political accountability cum goodwill of the government is a must for rectifying the situation in order to ensure safety of workers in factories and establishments.
(Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. Email: [email protected])