There has been almost no improvement in workplace safety in the garment factories over the years, as authorities have largely prevented correction of gaps in the garment industry.
This relaxed attitude on the part of the government has allowed violations of the rules to continue, often leading to industrial incidents and the deaths of innocent workers such as the country witnessed on Thursday.
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Although industry, government and the international community have said that the collapse of Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza in 2012 and 2013, respectively, was a wake-up call for Bangladesh, security concerns have been largely ignored. in the workplace in non-garment industries.
Despite the two deadliest industrial incidents, owners and authorities have taken no lessons to improve working conditions to save the lives of millions of workers in non-RMG sectors.
The catastrophic fire at Hashem Foods Ltd in Rupganj in Narayanganj is a shining example of ignoring workplace safety measures. At least 52 workers died in hell at the juice factory.
Many survivors reported that emergency evacuation routes were not easily accessible for movement from the upper floors and the folding gates of several floors were locked. The ground floor was piled up with raw materials, which occupied the exit ways.
As a result, workers shouted in the thick, dark smoke before dying in the blaze, which continued overnight as it took time for firefighters to devour it.
“Much of the emphasis has been on improving workplace safety in the export-oriented garment industry. No visible initiative has been taken to improve workplace safety in the garment sector,” said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, director of research. of the Policy Dialogue Center (CPD).
Safety inspections led by the Factory and Facility Inspection Department (DIFE) were carried out mainly in garment factories to see if workers were receiving wages and other rights they are entitled to and use child labor.
“We have seen fires in chemical warehouses and plastic factories in Old Dhaka. Rising explosions of boilers and gas cylinders in clothing and other sectors indicate new areas of concern in the industrial sector. “Overall, workplace safety in non- RMG sectors has not improved,” Moazzem said.
There is no proper monitoring of fire safety issues and compliance of building codes in the garment sector, said Razequzzaman Ratan, president of the Samajtantrik Sramik Front, a labor rights group.
“Hashem Foods also violated labor law by hiring children and keeping the main gate locked.”
He said the garment sector, which accounts for 85 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports, had been given priority in securing a secure workplace due to pressure from buyers, brands, the European Union and workers.
Wajedul Islam Khan, general secretary of the Kendra Syndicate of Bangladesh, blamed DIFE’s gross negligence and inefficiency for the Rupgani fire.
He claimed that the companies did not want elected unions, but that the unions could inform the regulators about mismanagement and help take the necessary measures on the issue of security.
“Deaths, accidents and illnesses at work can be avoided when employers, workers and governments respect international safety standards,” said Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director of the International Labor Organization.
After the Tazreen Fire incident and the collapse of Rana Plaza, the government, employers and employers’ organizations, brands and buyers took a collaborative initiative to cultivate a culture of safety in the garment industry, he said.
The focus was initially on the garment industry, with the understanding that the practices developed in the sector will be applied to other sectors over time.
“This has happened in recent years, but due to limited resources in labor inspection and the Koran virus pandemic, coverage in other areas is not yet very extensive,” Poutiainen said.
“It’s time to step up our efforts to extend good practice from the RMG sector to all other industries.”
Poutiainen said it was important to remember that industrial safety could not really be achieved in a country without stronger regulations and accountability, the voice and participation of employees and responsible practices by employers and building owners.
“We have been discussing fire and safety issues for all factories for the past many years, but no visible action has been taken yet,” said Shakil Akhter Chowdhury, executive member of the Institute of Laboratory Studies in Bangladesh.
Following the Rana Plaza incident, some structural changes have begun in the clothing sector. “The garment industry remains in a bad state for workers,” he said.
“Most of the resources and efforts have been devoted to improving workplace safety in the garment sector, while other areas remain neglected,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, former executive director of BILS.
There are huge industrial sectors besides clothing, but they receive less distribution and priority, he said.
Another reason for the recurrence of such incidents is the absence of punishment of the owners and others who were responsible for the death and injury of the employees, according to Ahmmed.
A culture of impunity has been established because of the delay in justice for industrial killings, he said.
“As a result, the owners remain concerned. Besides, the reports of the inquiry committees are not made public.”
Nasir Uddin Ahmed, DIFE’s inspector general, blamed the government’s lack of manpower for overseeing safety issues in areas other than the garment industry.
Currently, the number of approved positions for inspectors at DIFE is over 900. In fact, 400 employees are available, he said.
“We have asked the Ministry of Labor to hire 1,791 DIFE qualified staff.”
Two DIFE inspectors inspected the Hashem Foods building on July 7 and submitted a report, he said.
“Although factory owners have worked to resolve labor rights issues, they have not addressed safety issues,” said the DIFE chief.