Fire safety was lost on inspectors
A month before the devastating fire at Hashem Foods Limited in Narayanganj, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments visited the facility.
But the department, entrusted with the task of checking fire hazards and other workplace safety issues, did not look into any of that.
"We went there to inspect whether the Covid-19 health safety guidelines were maintained there. We found some shortcomings and warned them," Nesar Uddin, labour inspector of DIFE Narayanganj office, told The Daily Star.
Nesar said he could not remember the last time his department visited the factory to assess its compliance with the workplace safety rules.
This correspondent then contacted Soumen Barua, deputy inspector general (Narayanganj zone) of DIFE. He also could not tell when the department paid the factory a visit.
Serious issues like lack of fire safety measures and employment of children came to light after Thursday's devastating fire at the factory in Rupganj that killed 51 workers.
The six-storey building has only two stairwells when it should have at least five, firefighters told reporters after the tragedy.
"The DIFE has a big responsibility and it failed to carry it out. If a factory bars DIFE officials from entering the factory, the DIFE has the authority to close it down," said Shahidullah Chowdhury, president of Trade Union Centre.
The factory owners and the DIFE are equally responsible for the incident, he said.
Jafrul Hasan Sharif, a labour expert involved in drafting the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 and the National Labour Policy 2012, said the DIFE's capacity for inspections multiplied after the Rana Plaza collapse.
"The disaster in Narayanganj would not have happened if the DIFE properly inspected the factory. The issue of the lack of stairways, fire extinguishers, child labour and other safety hazards are supposed to be flagged during an inspection. Did they not find anything during the annual license renewal of the factory?" asked Sharif, who was also involved in drafting the Bangladesh Labour Rule 2015.
According to the DIFE website, "The department was established in 1970 with a vision to create a better working environment for the workers through implementing labour laws and regulations, eliminating child labour, enhancing productivity of factories by creating a better working environment, ensuring workplace safety including fire safety and welfare of workers and implementing minimum wages declared in different sectors."
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, former executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said the DIFE mainly focuses on readymade garment factories and other factories have for years remained out of their radar.
Amid rapid economic growth in the country, new factories are sprouting up every year, he said, adding, "A culture of impunity and poor compensation for the victims have developed over time. This should stop right now."
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, there are around 80 lakh economic units across the country. One unit means a factory where five or more workers are employed.
THE DIFE'S EXPLANATION
In Narayanganj zone, 3,450 factories are registered with the DIFE. The department is mandated to visit each factory once a year. There are 14 labour inspectors and six assistant inspector generals in the zone, Suman Barua said, adding that the workforce is inadequate for the job.
"It is a Herculean task for us. We cannot visit every factory once a year with such understaffed manpower," he said.
Top officials of the department said there are more than 90,000 factories registered with it, adding that it has been growing as fast as the economy of the country. To visit these facilities, the department has around 300 inspectors.
It means that over 246 factories would have to be visited by the department every day to cover all the registered ones in a year.
The department also does not have offices in every district. It operates through a headquarters and 23 district offices.
Khan said if his department wanted to visit all the economic units, registered and unregistered, it would take 10 years for it to revisit a factory.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the organisation inspected 43,401 factories, shops and establishments. A total of 2,755 complaints were received and 2,064 complaints were resolved.
A total of 1,429 cases were filed and 844 were settled.
In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the DIFE inspected 27,000 factories and filed 1,004 cases. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, it inspected 32,924 factories and filed 1,273 cases. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, a total of 42,639 factories were inspected and a total of 1,772 cases were filed.
"We visit only the registered factories and give licenses to the new factories," said DIFE Inspector General Md Nasir Uddin Ahmed.