Virtually no improvement in workplace safety has taken place at factories other than the garment industry over the years, as authorities have mostly become bogged down in fixing shortcomings in the garment industry.
Such a lax attitude on the part of the government allowed rule violations to continue, causing frequent industrial incidents and the deaths of innocent workers as the country witnessed on Thursday.
Although people in the industry, government and international communities have said that the Tazreen Fashions fire and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2012 and 2013 respectively were a wake-up call for Bangladesh, the Safety issue has been largely ignored in workplaces in non-garment industries.
Despite the two deadliest industrial incidents, owners and authorities have learned nothing to improve working conditions in order to save the lives of millions of workers employed in non-RMG industries.
Thursday’s devastating fire at Hashem Foods Ltd in Rupganj in Narayanganj is a blatant example of ignoring workplace safety measures. At least 52 workers have died in the juice processing plant hell.
Many survivors said emergency evacuation routes were not easily accessible to exit upper floors, and folding doors to different floors were locked. The ground floor was piled up with raw materials, which occupied the exit routes.
As a result, workers howled in the thick, dark smoke before dying in the blaze that continued through the night as it took time for firefighters to extinguish it.
“Most of the emphasis has been on improving occupational safety in the export-oriented garment industry. No visible initiative has been taken to improve safety at work in sectors other than clothing, ”said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Center for Political Dialogue (DPC).
Safety inspections conducted by the Department of Factory and Establishment Inspection (DIFE) mainly took place in garment factories to see if workers are receiving wages and other benefits and if they are using labor. children.
“We have seen fires at chemical warehouses and plastic factories in old Dhaka. The increasing incidences of boiler and gas cylinder explosions in the RMG sectors have not improved, ”said Moazzem.
There is no proper oversight of fire safety and building code compliance issues in sectors other than clothing, said Razequzzaman Ratan, chairman of Samajtantrik Sramik Front, a labor rights group.
“Hashem Foods also violated the labor law by hiring children and keeping the main door locked.”
He said the garment sector, which accounts for 85 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, has been given priority in the campaign to ensure a safe workplace due to pressure from buyers, brands, European Union and workers.
Wajedul Islam Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Kendra union, blamed the gross negligence and ineffectiveness of the DIFE on the Rupganj fire.
He alleged that companies did not want elected unions, but workers’ bodies could inform regulators about mismanagement and help take necessary action on the safety issue.
“Deaths, incidents and illnesses at work can be prevented when employers, workers and governments adhere to international safety standards,” said Tuomo Poutiainen, country director of the International Labor Organization.
Following the incident of the Tazreen fire and the collapse of Rana Plaza, a collaborative initiative was taken by the government, employers ‘and workers’ organizations, brands and buyers to instill a safety culture in the garment industry, he said.
The focus was initially on the clothing industry, with the understanding that practices developed in the sector would be extended to other sectors over time.
“This has happened in recent years, but due to the limited resources of the labor inspectorate and the coronavirus pandemic, coverage in other sectors is not yet very extensive,” Poutiainen said.
“It is high time to step up efforts to extend good practices from the RMG sector to all other industries.”
Poutiainen said it was important to remember that industrial security could not be truly achieved in a country without the presence of stricter regulation and accountability, the voice and participation of workers, and responsible practices. the share of employers and building owners.
“We have been discussing fire and safety issues for all factories for many years, but no visible action has yet been taken,” said Md Shakil Akhter Chowdhury, executive member of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies.
After the Rana Plaza incident, some structural changes were initiated in the clothing industry. “The non-clothing industrial sector remains in poor shape for workers,” he said.
“Most of the resources and efforts have been devoted to improving occupational safety in the garment sector, while other sectors have remained neglected,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, former executive director of the BILS.
There are large industrial sectors other than clothing, but they receive fewer allocations and priorities, he said.
Another reason for the recurrence of such incidents is the lack of punishment for owners and others, who were responsible for the deaths and injuries of workers, according to Ahmmed.
A culture of impunity has developed due to the delay in justice for industrial killings, he said.
“As a result, the owners remain indifferent. In addition, the reports of the committees of inquiry are not made public.”
DIFE Inspector General Md Nasir Uddin Ahmed blamed the shortage of manpower in the government agency to properly monitor safety issues in sectors other than the garment industry.
Currently, the number of approved DIFE inspector positions is over 900. In reality, 400 employees are available, he said.
“We have asked the Ministry of Labor to recruit 1,791 qualified employees for the DIFE.
Two DIFE inspectors inspected the Hashem Foods building on July 7 and submitted a report, he said.
“Although the owners of the factory have worked to resolve the labor rights issues to some extent, they have not addressed the safety issues,” said the head of DIFE.