How long will garments factories remain death traps? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 06, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 06, 2010

How long will garments factories remain death traps?

Fire service personnel had to break portion of Garib and Garib factory wall to rescue workers.

Death rarely comes by appointment. It arrives without warning, as it did at Garib and Garib sweater factory at Bhogra under Gazipur district on February 25. 21 workers, 15 of them female, died and several others were injured. When such death occurs due to human negligence and callousness, one has to feel scared.
With the country still reeling under the trauma and shock of the Japan Garden City fire, the worst ever in a residential building, people were jolted by another fire incident in a factory building near Dhaka. These two incidents of factory and building fire were terrible.
These tragic deaths seemed to have touched a chord in all of us because the garments industry, employing the largest labour force in the country, especially women, is a part of our national pride and existence. Systematic flouting of safety norms and regulations has turned the country's garments factories into veritable death traps.
A post-disaster sweep in some of these garments factories has revealed the sorry state of affairs. About 60 percent of the 4,500 garments factories in the country lack adequate fire fighting tools. Even after a fire in this very factory claimed a fire fighter's life last August, the management made no effort to keep water in the factory's own hydrant, as revealed by press reports.
The garments owners' association, along with a ministerial committee set up by the government immediately after a series of fires in garments factories, identified ten causes for such mishaps. These include absence of alternative stairs or emergency exit routes, lack of fire fighting equipment and materials, faulty gas and electric lines in the factories, violation of building codes that prohibit installing a labour intensive and fire prone factory above the second floor, non-use of fire retardant materials in walls and the roof, use of low quality fittings, lack of proper warning and signal arrangement by a public address system, and lack of disaster drill and training of workers.
As for the Garib and Garib sweater factory, the recipe was ripe for a disaster. It was revealed through enquiries by the press that 11 guards were on duty on that fateful "black Thursday night," but none knew how to operate fire extinguishers and hydrants. To make matters worse, heavy grill windows with sealed glass panes did not let the smoke out.
The notices served on the owners to set up hydrant points, build underground reservoirs with a capacity of one lakh gallon of water, and set up a pump with a capacity of lifting 300 to 350 litre of water, were never followed. Nor were smoke and heat detectors installed. Factory operation rules make it mandatory for each factory to have two
staircases, one for regular use and the other for emergency exit.
True, many factories now have an emergency exit, but the space is so narrowed by piles of goods and materials -- as was revealed in the Garib and Garib sweater factory -- that it could not be used in times of emergency. It was further revealed that almost none of the factories have battery operated emergency lights, which are essential to check stampede and chaos when darkness envelops the premises in the event of an electrical short circuit.
The probe committee formed by the government also said that poor ventilation in the stairs and construction of unauthorised C. I.-sheet structures on the roof of the building -- that were being used as storage site for highly inflammable materials -- did not let the smoke out and the workers suffocated to death for lack of oxygen. The workers could not come out of the building as the main gate was locked.
After making a tour of the garments factories in and around the city, one gets a somewhat unhappy impression. In most of them fire-safety checks are non-existent. The factory buildings are not built following proper safety standards, have a near absence of emergency exits and operate without a licence from the fire service and civil defence directorates. Often, fire safety certificates are not taken from the fire department but from the electrical inspectorate, which knows little about fire prevention mechanisms.
Most shockingly, an industry that employs about 20 lakh workers, mostly women, and ranks as the biggest foreign exchange earner and job provider, has given little attention towards ensuring the safety and security of its workers. No sensible citizen in the country can understand how such a vital industry could be allowed to operate with so little accountability and virtually no periodic inspection.
When there is a fire incident resulting in fatalities, both BGMEA and the administration talk about forming probe committees in a bid to bring about reforms and establish accountability, but the enthusiasm dies down in no time.
While the long-term measure of relocating these industries to the outskirts of the city, as suggested by the minister for labour and overseas employment during his visit to this factory after the fire incident, is a long way off, short term measures like installation of fire fighting equipment and creation of emergency exit routes must be taken up without further delay. Sadly enough, with the main gate remaining locked and the security personnel having fled from the factory premises with keys after they had sensed danger, fire fighters had to cut grills of second floor to rescue four to five workers. People shudder to think what a colossal disaster it would have been if even half of the 3500 work force that the factory employs would have been present in that shift!
In most cases, building laws are violated with impunity. Most factories have exit routes or stairs that are blocked by baskets full of waste. Most shockingly, in most cases the main entrance gate remains locked without the guard being available, as it happened in the case of Garib and Garib sweater factory. Most appallingly true, electrical lines in most of these factories are most fragile and a little spark or fluctuation of voltage causes a short-circuit that can spread the fire through the whole installation in the twinkling of an eye.
Despite the fact that a series of fire incidents had taken place in quick succession, the licensing authorities or the administration have never visited these factories to see if these units meet the safety regulations or norms. Most of the factories situated in the narrow by-lanes or densely populated residential areas in high-rise buildings are inaccessible to fire tenders.
Starting in the '80s, this industry has made substantial impact on our economy, identifying itself as a vital foreign exchange earner as well as providing jobs to a vast number of unemployed youths, especially women. The absorption of a large number of female workers -- a big outflow of migrant unemployed and widowed and unwed women from the rural areas -- has added to the importance of sustaining this industry with care and caution.
Md. Asadullah Khan is a former teacher of physics and Controller of Examinations, BUET. e-mail :

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