Garments factories or death traps? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2012


Garments factories or death traps?

Habibul Haque/drik News

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True, natural disasters are a universal reality and humans have no control over it. But when disasters are man-made, and our preparedness is either non-existent or minimum, we have reasons to be worried.
Damage can be minimised in any sector when if the concerned authorities, like industrial owners, have an effective safety plan and an efficient team to fight such crisis.
Shockingly though, the garments sector here has neither.
The fire incident at Tazreen Fashions is a pathetic reminder of the callousness of the garment's owner in meeting safety norms of those staggering 6,000 employees that work there. If the death of hundreds wasn't tragic enough, the lethargy, management capability and the chaos of response by the owners of such factories was unforgivable.
It is a failure of the owners as well as the state, whose agencies seem incapable of making proper surveillance of such a vital sector; which currently earns the highest foreign remittance.
It is a sad reflection on us too, for the public reaction has been muted.
True, till now inertia prevailed, as if a nation so often visited by tragedy has been inured to it.
But these tragic deaths seemed to have touched the chord of all of us because the garments industry employing the largest labour force in the country is otherwise a national pride. Systematic flouting of safety norms and regulations has turned the country's garments factories into veritable death traps.
About 60% of the 5,000 garments factories lack fire fighting tools. The inspection report recently revealed that even with fire extinguishers, no one would know how to operate it. The garments owners association along with a ministerial committee set up by the government immediately after a series of fire incidents in garments factories beginning from 2004 to 2010 identified ten causes for such mishaps.
These include absence of emergency exit routes, lack of fire-fighting equipments, faulty gas and electric lines, violation building codes that prohibit installing a labour intensive and fire prone factory above the second floor, non-use of fire retardant materials on the walls and the roof, use of low quality electrical fittings, lack of proper warning and signal arrangement by a public address system and most importantly lack of disaster drills and training of workers.
After analysing the fire incident in Garib and Garib sweater factory in 2010, that claimed 21 lives, it was revealed that notices served on owners to set up hydrant points, build underground reservoirs and set up a pump with a capacity of lifting 300 to 350 litres of water, were never followed.
The tragedy with tragedies is that they have a short shelf life as far as public memory is concerned. A majority of us are so caught up in today's rat race that our memory cache cannot absorb more information than it can handle, especially if it is disturbing.
Some events, however, have the ability to transcend such mental firewalls. The Tazreen garments fire incident last Saturday was one such.
Days on, it still haunts us, because it was such an unusual catastrophe, the likes of which had not been witnessed in the last 20 years.
But this is just the beginning of a tragedy. Polash, son of Rafiqul Islam, a disabled father hailing from Rangpur who was being supported by Polash will never come back to support the family that includes his father, mother and a sister.
Polash's father's question put to the reporters covering the disaster scene is: “Can my life ever return to normal without Polash, my only son?” will always haunt us.
There are lessons to be learnt from the 114 deaths. Lessons that should have been learnt a long time ago, but because successive governments, industry owners and politicians were so callous and indifferent that death and devastation continued to shoot up.
Most of the factories have exit routes or stairs throttled with waste clothes and baskets full of waste products like jhoot. In the case of Tazreen Fashions, all the stairs led to the ground floor that was packed with cotton yarn and acrylic yarn known to be highly inflammable, completely blocking the way in case of emergency.
Most ominously, the main collapsible gate was locked by some unscrupulous managerial staff in apprehension of theft. They attached more importance to the cost of materials than to human lives.
It was further learnt that the ground floor of this factory was used as the ware house of other garments factories in the area. There is hardly any plausible explanation as to why the main collapsible gate should be locked and the key or why the security guard would not be available during an emergency.
Similar incidents took place in the Sheefa garments and Omega sweaters factories in the earlier years.
People have also raised questions about the location of the factory, set in such a place that remains inaccessible to fire tenders and obstructs speedy and effective rescue operations.
On the other hand, no one really believes that the garments industries are a losing concern and that, as such, any additional investment would render the business unprofitable. Smoke alarms and sprinklers that might cost only a few lakhs could have been installed in most of these factories.
None of these factories have battery-operated emergency lights that cost only a few thousand taka, a dire need to check stampede, chaos and melee when darkness and smoke envelop the premises during a sudden short circuit.
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 cohort of unemployed youths, especially women.
This industry now employs about 30 lakh men and women; comprising 60% women workers. The absorption of a large number of female workers -- a big outflow of migrant, unemployed widowed and unwed women from the rural areas -- has added to the importance of sustaining it with care and caution.
The report that Walmart, a big US buyer of our readymade garments, has terminated its relations with Tazreen Fashions in the context of the non-compliance by the manufacturers after learning about colossal tragedy is really alarming.
People apprehend that other buyers might follow the suit if there exists such non-compliance of the norms and regulations in running such fire-prone industries. The Fire Service authority has a great role to play to the extent of sealing a factory building for fire safety violation.
None of those factories should be allowed to operate without having a fire safety drill.
Speaking about the short-term measures, the stairs must be widened and there must be more than one stairway as well and a number of accessible exit routes with avenues for the fire-fighting equipment to gain access to the building.
Workers must also come under insurance coverage without any exception.
Precisely known to all, the series of incidents that go unchallenged with frightening regularity owe their origins to the multiplicity of authorities; each conniving their obligations blissfully unaware of the implications, often in exchange of cash rewards.
It is high time we ponder about allowing these fire traps to pass off as sophisticated industries where innocent and gullible humans could put their sweat to earn a living.
Neither the government, nor the owners of the factories, can absolve themselves of such responsibilities.
The writer is a Columnist for The Daily Star.
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