With Bangladesh taking charge of fire safety standards in readymade garment (RMG) factories due to mounting pressure of North American and European retailers, thousands of registered industrial units in 41 industrial sectors scattered across the country are virtually going without such compliance. These factories producing a wide variety of consumer and industrial goods and employing millions are without any inspection by the government agencies in the absence of stringent monitoring as enforced in case of the RMG factories. The result was that about 35 workers were killed and more than 150 others were injured when an explosion took place at the Tampaco Foils Ltd on September 10. The explosion triggered a massive fire and led to the partial collapse of the three-storey factory building of Tampaco Foils Ltd in the industrial area of the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) in Gazipur, some 20km north of capital Dhaka.
Even the cause of the blast could not yet be established. According to Industries Minister Amir Hossain Amu, a gas line leakage was the cause of devastating fire at the Tongi factory. According to eyewitnesses, the fire spread across the five-storey factory building of Tampaco Foils Ltd after the explosion. The fire also caused a major part of the factory building to collapse. The factory and adjacent areas got engulfed in black smoke after the fire. Lt Col Musharaf Hossain, director (training, development & planning) of Fire Service and Civil Defence Department was of the view that the fire originated from boiler explosion.
But MA Mannan, chief inspector of boilers, later claimed that the fire did not break out from boiler explosion. An official from his office also inspected the factory and found the boiler room to be intact. As the boiler did not explode, the explosion may have caused from a gas leak, he said. The explosion was huge and the fire spread quickly through the floors of the factory as flammable chemicals and oil drums were stored there. The factory was risky as it was housed in a 40-year-old structure. Fire service personnel could not enter the building for rescue operation as there were chemical containers on various floors.
Reasons for total thrust on remediation in fire safety standards in RMG industries are plausible. While the United States withdrew Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) trade benefits to Bangladesh due to Rana Plaza building collapse and Tazreen Fashions fire, Western consumers too raised hue and cry over the plight of Bangladeshi workers who produce clothes for them. They even threatened to boycott Bangladeshi apparels. Western clothing retailers inevitably faced questions over the link between cheap fashion and worker safety in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed 1,129 people.
The Rana Plaza collapse was a stark reminder of the human cost behind the plentiful supply of affordable goods in the Western countries. It also threatened to damage the reputation of brands like Primark, which got some of its cheap cloths from the building. Following the disaster, which involved manufacturers working for up to 40 companies, including British retailers Matalan and Bonmarché as well as Primark, more than 50 brands signed up to a legally binding building safety agreement backed by international trade union IndustriALL and the Bangladeshi government. The industry has been galvanised into action by a tragedy that has finally forced closer co-operation between international brands, unions, the Bangladesh government and local suppliers. The eyes of the world are now on this.
It is to be noted that there are 42 industrial sectors in Bangladesh but sadly, only RMG factories are being inspected following a specific checklist since 2012 set by the Social Compliance Forum under the Commerce Ministry. The other sectors lack effective safety inspections due to an absence of specific checklist. According to press reports, there are only six inspectors to monitor fire safety standards in over 23,000 registered factories barring those of the RMG industries. The situation in RMG factories is now better in view of stringent remediation measures under the European and the North American retailers.
It is against this backdrop that ILO Director General Guy Ryder has said the incident at Tampaco Foils Ltd in Gazipur highlights that there can be no room for complacency and much ground still needs to be covered despite progress about security of workers in Bangladesh. "The ILO is ready to further support Bangladesh's efforts to ensure the safety of its workers," Ryder said in response to Tampaco Foils Limited fire.
According to the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), there are a total of 23,218 registered factories across the country and of which RMG factories are 5,002. The total number of economic units was 8.07 million in the country but the government is yet to have a complete picture of factories operating in upazilas, districts and divisions.
The DIFE maintains only a list of registered factories and establishments. All the economic units should have come under government registration and the new checklist would cover all the establishments.
There should be a national checklist for the industrial sector of the country as the government is reportedly working on formulating a national inspection policy in line with the Labour Act. Ensuring adequate fire safety in all the factories will undoubtedly be a Herculean task to accomplish in the absence of good governance in almost all fields as well as poor manpower strength in the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments. Now the concern is whether Bangladesh can do it because a huge number of industrial units are operating in the country.