Factories catering to the local market continue defying regulations as all eyes remain fixed upon the RMG industry
Despite many recent incidents of fires, most factories catering to the domestic market are reluctant to comply with safety regulations as eyes are fixed on the export-oriented RMG industry since the Rana Plaza incident.
The latest of these incidents occurred on Friday at a food processing factory of Sajeeb Corporation in Narayanganj, which claimed the lives of at least 53 people with dozens of workers missing and injured.
Lax enforcement of safety standards and unsafe working conditions in the factories have made fires a common tragedy for workers in Bangladesh in recent years, said experts.
According to the fire service, a total of 117,060 fires have been reported across the country in the last six years, 6,081 of which were in the industrial sector.
Although fires in garment factories have decreased in the last couple of years due to pressure from foreign buyers and coordination among factory owners, the scenario is completely different in other factories.
The building in Narayanganj was not established in accordance with the safety codes and there were not enough stairs to get to the emergency exit, said factory sources. The necessary firefighting equipment was also not available.
Initially built as a warehouse, the authorities later turned it into a factory, placing heavy equipment in small rooms alongside combustible chemicals, the sources said.
“Many factories do not have separate warehouses, so goods are piled up on different floors of the building. There is never a wide staircase to get to the emergency exit. An unplanned narrow staircase turns into a smoky chimney during a fire,” said an official of the fire service.
Zillur Rahman Mridha, managing director of Vintage Denim Studio Limited — a LEED platinum certified RMG factory — said that such accidents used to happen in RMG factories too.
“But we have reduced these incidents significantly in the last few years. In this case, both our goodwill and the pressure of the buyers have worked equally well,” he added.
He also said that all other factories should also come forward in these matters like the RMG sector.
“They can form an effective and strong cell in coordination with entrepreneurs and the relevant agencies of the government,” Mridha added.
“We have formed a sustainability council in our sector. They can do the same. Government organizations should also inspect the factories regularly. In this way, it is possible to avoid too much damage in these accidents,” he added.
Khondaker Golam Moazzem, additional research director of Centre for the Policy Dialogue (CPD), said that when an entrepreneur goes to set up a factory, he has the compliance code, and the labour law in his hands.
“It is clearly mentioned how many fire extinguishers and how many emergency exit stairs there will be in a factory. There is also a clear directive on the law prohibiting child labour,” he added.
It is the responsibility of the entrepreneur when a factory is established and runs in violation of these rules, Moazzem said.
“Moreover, the factory inspection department and fire service are all assigned to inspect a factory. They must have visited the factory at some point, but it is also questionable why they did not report this,” he added.
He further said that this incident will not affect the RMG exports.
However, the immense potential for the export of agriculture and agricultural products may be somewhat affected by this incident, according to Moazzem.
Sources at the juice factory also said that child labourers had been working in the compound at the time of the inferno.
“Most of the workers here are children. Among them, girls start from the age of 12 and boys from the age of 14 and they work here for salaries ranging from Tk3,000 to Tk6,000,” said a worker of the factory.
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According to the fire department, there are currently 1,187 high-risk and 3,517 risky facilities with potential for fire accidents across the country.
Among them, 1,069 high-risk and 2,583 risky facilities are in the capital alone, which include offices, factories, markets and shopping malls.
About 93% of multi-storied residential buildings, shopping malls, and factories in Dhaka do not have fire extinguishers or enough stored water in their reservoirs, fire service officials said.
Although there are a limited number of fire extinguishers in some places, its proper use is not known to many.
Usually, electrical short circuits have been blamed for fires in multi-storied buildings. Electrical wires, fittings, fuses, circuit breakers are not of proper quality for these installations and there is also lax in regular repairs and maintenance, they said.
To avoid these accidents, experts believe that it is important to identify and resolve systemic errors, strengthen effective fire extinguishing systems, build wide emergency exits, sustainable construction and regular arrangements of fire drills and fire demonstrations.