Reports on private television channels were still showing the video clips of a factory building burning. The electronic media was still covering the event with one reporter being stationed there and giving a brief account of the incident every time the studio loops him or her in. At our end, as manufacturers, we crib and complain for being covered in such frequency; as human beings, we burn in shame.
Starting from the Mirpur tragedy in 1990, to 53 deaths in Choudhury Knitwear in 2000, to 24 deaths at Maico Sweaters in 2001, the nine in Nisco Supermarket building, the 23 at Shan Knitting, and of course the 64 in an incident of building collapse of Spectrum in 2005, the records wreak tragedy.
Tazreen Fashion Ltd, a unit of Tuba Group at Nischintapur in Savar, is reported to be exporting knit items worth $35 million. A factory, which was set up only three years ago, with a sprawling 49,000 square feet equipped with twelve production lines, 1,200 workers, a machinery strength of 650 sets, produces knitted polo shirts, fancy fleece jackets and basic t-shirts.
As a manufacturer myself, it felt only natural to visit the site. It was impossible to maneuver the car through the road. There were hundreds of workers from other factories who were all over the place, with their own mobile phones, taking pictures of the charred building. The road seemed extraordinarily long and I was wondering how long it could have taken for the fire service trucks to reach the spot. The law requires a clear space of nine feet to be left around the factory building in order to allow fire service teams to access the affected site. But what happens when the roads to the factory happen to be of inadequate width for the fire service team to access? How do we comply?
There was no representation from the factory management; there was no sign of any worker. Police and fire service personnel swarmed the site along with the television crew. None could explain the source of fire and none could explain exactly what had happened. There was an internal staircase, which was burnt. Apparently scrap material, electric boards blocked the stairway. All I saw was burnt yarns, which almost looked like burnt heads. Whether the fire had started from the store or whether there was a boiler, which had burst, was unclear. All I heard was that the fourth-floor gate had remained locked in spite of the workers burning there.
We are supposed to listen to law in this land. As per the Bangladesh gazette
29/5/2008, exit access, exit, and an exit discharge fall under the compulsory requirement for setting up a factory unit. No factory with more than 50 workers can have less than 1.1 metre of width; no factory can be exempted from the basic requirement of three exits if it has more than a thousand workers.
No factory can escape the rule of law, which clearly states that there has to be at least one fire extinguisher per every 5,500 square feet with 25 percent of the workers having full operational knowledge of fire fighting, rescue and coordination. The stairs have to be at least 55 inches wide and at least 78 inches in height. There has to be gas and powder-type extinguishers on the floor along with 30 refill masks, blankets, fire hoses, fire beaters, lock cutters, stretchers, ropes, etc.
Now is the moment for reality checks.
With the rule of having 6 percent of workers per factory being trained by the Fire Service and Civil Defence, there are hundreds of applications pending on BGMEA's desk. Unfortunately, in spite of charging a straight Tk 16,500 for 40 workers per application, neither BGMEA nor Fire Service has adequate manpower to train our factory workers. As far as licences go, things have just gotten worse lately. Some check and issue licences with diligence; some skip every process and issue them without checks. Building codes are not adhered to, water reservoirs are almost non-existent, fire extinguishers are mostly blocked, ebonite sheets are non-existent, circuit boxes have cobwebs, boilers and generators are not routinely checked, extinguishers are exposed to excess pressureâ€¦ The list could go on.
The parliament passed a bill on September 29, 2006 that requires the factories to have only a yearly drill. But deep down inside, most of us know that we ought to do at least a monthly one. The reason is simple: we are dealing with lives here and the community of manufacturers cannot just afford to routinely wake up with a scarred conscience for the rest of their time on this earth. We could have all the rules laid down for us; we could have all the tools and equipments in place; we could have all our compliance records straightâ€¦yet there could still be many more burnt Nischintapurs awaiting our path, till we ourselves readdress our limitations and study and practise compliance beyond the bare minimum.