Lawmakers, labour leaders and civil society members yesterday demanded arrest of the owner of Tazreen Fashions and others responsible for the deaths of 112 workers in the November 24 blaze in the factory.
They said successive governments have refrained from bringing factory owners to book for deaths of workers in fire and other incidents, and this culture of impunity has encouraged factory owners to remain indifferent to workers' safety and security.
"This sort of incident will continue to happen unless owners are brought to justice," said Israfil Alam, chairman of parliamentary standing committee on labour and employment ministry.
He was speaking at a dialogue organised by the Centre for Policy Dialogue at the Cirdap auditorium in the capital.
Alam said many workers were killed in fire and other incidents in the last two decades. "But no owner has so far taken responsibility for any of the incidents or deaths of workers in factories."
He criticised the probe report of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association that termed the November 24 fire incident an act of â€œsabotageâ€.
"Your report appears to be aiming to protect the owners."
Alam said BGMEA gave a clean chit to the Tazreen owner despite his negligence in complying with laws.
"The staircase of the factory ended at a storeroom. The road to the Tazreen factory is narrow and there was a shortage of water for dousing fire. Who is responsible for this? How do you clear the owner of negligence and deaths of workers," he asked.
In a presentation, Khondaker Golam Moazzem, CPD additional director (research), said, "We are not yet clear about who is responsible for the deaths of workers at Tazreen Fashions."
"We have seen a culture of passing the buck by all including government agencies, BGMEA, and buyers. Then, who are responsible for the fire and deaths of workers."
The families of many workers, who were burnt alive in the fire, are yet to get compensation. And many of the injured workers are struggling to bear their treatment cost.
The identity of the garment workers, who were buried unidentified, are yet to be found out, he said.
CPD blamed policy makers and government agencies for their negligence in enforcing labour laws to ensure the safety of workers, who help the country fetch nearly $20 billion in export earnings.
It said there was negligence on the part of Tazreen's owner and the management in complying with laws.
The compliance checklist prepared by BGMEA is inadequate to find out which factory is compliant and which is not, said CPD.
Mahe Alam, a survivor of the Tazreen blaze, said the managers prevented the workers from leaving the factory after the fire broke out.
â€œI got out of the factory by breaking a window,â€ he said.
Dipa Akhter, another survivor of the fire, said, â€œWe were told that if we left the factory, our attendance would not be counted and we would not get our overtime."
Dipa said she received Tk 1 lakh for treatment. "But the families of many deceased are yet to get compensation. What will happen to the parents and children of those workers," she asked.
Nazrul Islam Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said, "How is it possible in a civilised country that workers are buried unidentified.â€
He said â€œconspiracyâ€ or â€œsabotageâ€ has been mentioned as the reason behind the fire incidents in the past, but actually, none of it is true.
Backing the right to have trade unions at garment factories, he said, "There will be no sudden strike or vandalism if workers are given the right to have trade unions."
Veteran labour leader Shahidullah Chowdhury said the garment industry is at risk.
"Stubborn position of any stakeholder group may bring disaster for the whole industry and threaten jobs of lakhs of female workers and the economy," said Shahidullah, also adviser of Communist Party of Bangladesh.
"Steps should be taken to protect the whole industry, not the owners. If Tazreen's owner is arrested, it will send a message to the outside world and improve the country's image."
Nasir Uddin Chowdhury, the first BGMEA vice president, said BGMEA has taken a programme with the help of fire service department to prevent fire incidents in factories in Dhaka and Chittagong.
He said compensation has been given to the families of 57 deceased Tazreen workers.
CPD Distinguished Fellow Debapriya Bhattacharya said workers' safety and security must be given high priority to save the apparel industry from the risk of a possible crisis.
He said mismanagement, negligence and failure of government agencies to enforce law result in fire incidents at factories.
"There is no scope for avoiding responsibility," said Debapriya.
Ain O Salish Kendra Chairperson Hamida Hossain blamed the government for the delay in implementing the High Court directive to ensure workers' safety at factories.
Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation, said owners and buyers are not active enough to ensure workers' safety.
Wal-Mart would have continued buying garments from Tazreen if the fire did not break out, she said.
Mantu Ghosh, president of Bangladesh Garment Sramik Trade Union Centre, said owners file cases if workers steal anything but no effective initiative has been taken to bring the Tazreen owner to justice.
Bangladesh Employers Federation President Fazlul Hoque said the Tazreen fire was a wake-up call for factory owners. "We have a lot to do," he said.
Mikail Shipar, secretary of labour and employment ministry, said identities of 53 dead Tazreen workers remain unknown. DNA samples of family members of 47 unidentified workers were collected and reports would be available by the second week of next month.
Women's rights activist Maleka Begum also spoke there.