It appears that agencies concerned were either unaware of the irregularities at the Hashem Foods factory or did not take necessary action
At least 52 workers, mostly children and women, died in a fire at the factory of Hashem Foods in Narayanganj a week ago, prompting different government agencies to now reveal anomalies in the factory’s operations that had long been ignored.
It appears that the agencies were either unaware of the irregularities or did not take necessary action about dealing with them.
District police said they had interrogated eight people, including the chairman of Sajeeb Group, owner of Hashem Foods, and his sons, in custody and found them to have been negligent.
“They responded with silence to questions on building construction, approvals, design flaws, inadequate fire safety provisions and child labour. They could not say why the gates were locked during the fire and why chemicals were stored at the warehouse-like facility while continuing with production,” Narayanganj SP Zaidul Alam said.
Irregularities across the board
A police official involved in investigating the case filed over the fire said the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), the Department of Fire Service and Civil Defence and many government officials had also been negligent.
Requesting anonymity, he said the fire service should have inspected the factory to check if it had the necessary fire safety facilities and the DIFE should have inquired into child labour.
“We came to know that the factory authority applied for a fire safety certificate a few months ago,” he said.
“The DIFE is supposed to submit reports on factories and industries every month to the higher authorities. Besides, no government office ever mentioned the fact that the factory had piled up flammable substances needed for production without a licence to do so,” he added.
Questioned on the matter, Additional Deputy Commissioner Shamim Bepari, head of the panel formed by the district administration to probe the incident, said: “We have also found some anomalies but cannot disclose them to the media right now.”
Meanwhile, Department of Environment (DoE) officials said the factory authority had acquired a licence from the department in 2000 to manufacture mango drinks only, but later started producing other food products without going through the proper channels.
Stating that the factory administration applied for a renewal of the licence on June 14, Abdullah Al Mamun, Deputy Director of the district DoE office, said: “We went to inspect the facility and found that they were producing other soft drinks, puffed rice, etc. Besides, there were unauthorized boiler machines as well.”
A factory is supposed to submit a report on its liquid waste discharge every three months, but Hashem Foods could not show any such report filed after October 2020, Mamun told Dhaka Tribune.
“We wrote to them asking for all relevant updated documents on June 30 but they have not responded yet,” he added.
On the issue of fire safety, Narayanganj Fire Service Deputy Assistant Director Md Tanhar said the agency had asked the factory administration to upgrade its fire safety equipment several times, but to no avail.
He continued: “In a factory where several items are produced, there needs to be different equipment such as hose reels, cabinets, hydrants and CO2 but they did not have any of that.”
“We sent an inspector several times. We even sent a warning letter in October 2020 and a representative in December. They had promised that they would collect the equipment but did not do so,” the fire service official added.
Meanwhile, DIFE Deputy Inspector General Soumen Barua said the Hashem Foods factory obtained a clearance from the organization in 2000 but it was not known whether it had been obtained for warehousing or production.
Inspector Saikat Mahmud of the DIFE said: “We filed a case against them on Wednesday after finding evidence of child labour at the factory.”
“Our office last visited the factory on June 7, but only to inspect if Covid-19 guidelines were being followed. The inspector who led the team on the day did not investigate the issue of child labour,” he added.
The massive fire at the food processing factory in Narayanganj on July 8 left at least 52 people dead.
Three deaths were reported in the immediate aftermath of the fire at the six-storey building in the Kornogop area of Bhulta in the district’s Rupganj upazila, while firefighters recovered 49 charred bodies on July 9 from the burning building of Hashem Foods Ltd, a concern of Sajeeb Group.
Over 50 other workers were also injured after jumping off the building immediately after the fire broke out.