Hashem Foods fire Determining the liability of regulators
A virtual dialogue on Industrial Safety of the RMG Sector during the Post-Accord-Alliance Period on 11 July 2021 was organised by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Bangladesh. It mentioned that between May 2018 and April 2021, 46 accidents took place in the garment sector. The number of incidences increased by 100% in FY2020, compared to that in FY2019 and then the figure declined by 20% in FY2021 (up to April 2021). Fire and electrical (short-circuit) problems were the main reasons (35% of total incidences) behind such accidents.
After the Chawk Bazar fire incident on February 20, 2021 that killed at least 70 people, the government formed a five-member committee to find out the causes of fire. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) take less interest in inspecting factories and establishments outside the Ready-Made Garment sector in the country, according to the government report, most of the resources and efforts were dedicated to improving the workplace safety in the garment sector, while other sectors remained neglected. DIFE mostly focuses on the garment factories to see if the workers get salaries and other entitled benefits and if they employ child labour.
The situation in other sectors is in a dismal status as well. There is none to push the government and businesses to create work place safety. Prof Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), questioned why the DIFE could not show substantial performance even after eight years of the Rana Plaza building collapse. He was referring to the fire incidence of Hashem Food Industries Ltd.
The DIFE has formulated four thematic Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to improve its labour inspection services. The new SOPs are formulated with the technical assistance of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and financial assistance from Canada, Netherlands, and United Kingdom in November 2020. Those are on registration and licensing of organisations, approval of factory layout plan, labour complaints, and investigation of occupational accidents.
DIFE and Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence Department (BFSCD) developed their information systems i.e. Labour Inspection Management Application (LIMA) and e-Fire Licensing system respectively in 2017. It has been reportedly used regularly from 2019 particularly in RMG sector. There is strong ownership of LIMA from the DIFE as they have secured budget for its further development and maintenance.
ILO was concerned about the state of safety standard and implementation of the laws and rule while issuing licence for factory. There is no improvement of the situation despite huge investments of donors and efforts of ILO to draw attention of different departments of the government. According to Factory inspection Checklist, DIFE did not inspect accounting and the inspection may be a good evidence revealing the misrepresentation of facts in the report. The report format has clauses for details of labour such as number of workers, their age and sex etc., and for the names of the approving officers for the building, lay-out, design, soil test report and even the name of the contractors. But despite all the irregularities, how industries get fitness certificate from DIFE on yearly basis is a question. Hashem Food started their business in 1982 and DIFE has been certifying it on yearly basis since then.
The inspector general of the DIFE, blamed the shortage of workforce in the government agency to properly oversee the safety issues in sectors other than the garment industry. He revealed that two inspectors of the DIFE inspected the Hashem Foods building on July 7 and submitted a report. The six-storey building was actually a warehouse, but it was used as a factory and contained combustible substances. The staircase was only five feet wide, despite the fact that it was supposed to be at least seven feet wide and also emergency exits. Children made up more than half of the total workforce employed at the Hasehm Food factory. According to both the fire service and civil defence department and the Electronic Safety and Security Association of Bangladesh, the building had two staircases against the minimum requirement for four based on the building floor area. The building did not seem to have any fire extinguishers.
An industry requires safety compliance of its establishment for getting loans from banks. Fire insurance and fire licence are mandatory too to get loans. Moreover, banks make an inspection over safety compliance issues every year. Multiple banks and insurance companies are involved with Hashem Group and all of them have been found to have disregarded its non-compliance with safety guidelines. The banks will now go to Artha Rin Adalat for recovery of bad loan but none will question the negligence of the Bankers.
Maintaining safe and healthy working conditions are required by government regulations and also make sense for business for economic reasons. There are plenty of good reasons on why any business would want to maintain a safe workplace. Other than the basic human desire to avoid pain and sufferings, workplace accidents can also destroy our business.
Mr Shahidullah, a member of the National Industrial Health and Safety Council said the system failure occurred at the implementation level. He further said that in addition to the owners, those who have given trade licenses or have shown laxity in the implementation of the law should also be punished.
The writer is a legal economist.