Rupganj fire tragedy and attempt to shield our failures

Published : Tuesday, 13 July, 2021 at 12:00 AM

Many disasters occur in Bangladesh each year due to poor fire and building safety standards. A fire swamped a food and drink factory in Bangladesh on 8 July, 2021 killing at least 52 people, many of whom were trapped inside by an illegally locked door, according to fire officials. Most of the victims were women and children, who worked in the factory.

The factory that caught fire on Thursday was a subsidiary of Sajeeb Group, a Bangladeshi company that under Pakistan’s Shezan International. Eight people, including the owner of Sajeeb Group and his sons, were arrested and taken into remand. They were shown arrested over the charges of murder and attempt to murder. But there might be other people who remain at their chairs while being actually responsible for the havoc. Hence, it is important that the real criminals are traced out for the sake of the industrial development in Bangladesh as well as for the cause of saving innocent lives.

Bangladesh has a history of industrial disasters, including factories catching fire with workers locked inside. Continuing corruption and careless administration have resulted in many deaths over the years and big international brands, which employ tens of thousands of low-paid workers in Bangladesh, have come under pressure to improve factory conditions after fires and other disasters killed thousands of people.

In April 2005, around 64 workers were killed and 100 others injured when a factory building collapsed in Dhaka. In February 2006, just a few days later, a fire at textile factory in the port city of Chittagong killed 65 workers and injured dozens. Another fire in Old Dhaka in a house illegally storing chemicals killed at least 123 people in 2010. At least 112 workers were killed in a fire at the nine-story Tazreen Fashion factory in the outskirts of Dhaka on November 24, 2012.

The worst industrial disaster of Bangladesh, which is also listed as one of the worst industrial disaster of the world, occurred on April 24, 2013, when the Rana Plaza garment factory outside Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. In February 2019, a blaze ripped through a 400-year-old area overcrowded with apartments, shops and warehouses at Old Dhaka and killed at least 67 people.

The International Labour Organization said in a 2017 report that, Bangladesh’s regulatory framework and inspections had not been able to keep pace with the development of the industry. ILO in a statement on 10 July, 2021 said, the Rupganj incident illustrates the importance of taking adequate fire safety measures while constructing buildings in Bangladesh. They also added, if the fire safety measures required by the regulations were properly implemented, it would provide for safe evacuation of occupants in this type of emergency.

Though the police have successfully captured eight people, including the company owner and his four sons, there must be some authority or regulator to check the fire safety or building code or labour welfare or environmental aspects and many things else for any industrial, commercial or residential building including that of the burnt factory building at Rupganj. Of course, there are authorities and definitely they did not do their duty properly–not at Sajeeb Group factory, not at Rana Plaza, not at Tazreen Fashion and not at most other places. Now, we are penalizing the factory owners only though these authorities are there to check on these issues and they are the real culprit.

For every building built, the building owner needs to pay fees and receive permission from the Fire Service and Civil Defense. Moreover, the building design, which portrays the number of exits, including the emergency ones, considering the size of the building or floors, is approved by RAJUK in Dhaka city and other competent authorities in other areas. The designs are approved by authorized engineers. We also have industrial inspectors who are responsible to ensure compliance at factories. We need to bring these authorities under justice for not carrying out their responsibilities.

We have Ministry of Labour and Employment as well as Department of Labour to ensure that child labour is not in practice. We have department of Environment to look after the environmental concerns of different industries. Thousands of NGOs and humanitarian organizations operating in Bangladesh also had some responsibilities in these matters. But none actually carries out their responsibilities.

Corruption at every phase is repeatedly leading towards severe industrial accidents in Bangladesh. The authorities and regulators are actually responsible for such incidents as their failure to carry out their roles– while prioritizing their greed–have taken thousands of lives in our country till now and it is the harsh reality. For example; the authority provides license to unskilled and uneducated drivers, provides fitness certificate to unfit vehicles like;buses, trucks, launches and many things else. But when that driver or vehicle commits an accident, it becomes the responsibility of the car owner. If the vehicle owner is responsible, then we do not need such authorities or regulators to gulp our hard-earned money.

The incident at Rupganj was termed as an accident but the factory owner, his four sons and few other staffs were captured and taken into remand on the allegation of murder and attempt to murder. It is not a good sign for the industrial development in Bangladesh. An industry owner does not set ablaze his factory intentionally. Though he can be blamed for not complying with all safety protocols, there are other authorities to be blamed more.

If the exit gates of a floor were locked or not cannot be supervised by the factory owner or his sons directly, there are employees for that. Hence, arresting the factory owner and his family members is actually nothing but a stunt. Moreover, what the police is intending to know by taking them in remand is totally not understandable.

In industrially developed countries, the factories and its workers are always insured. Even if an accident occurs, the workers as well as the factory owners are compensated by the insurance company. Hence, the insurance company also acts as a regulatory partner to ensure all sorts of safety protocols at all factories. There were hundreds of deadly industrial accidents all around the world, but nowhere the factory owner along with his family members were dragged to jail as those were truly assessed as accidents as competent authority ensured the proper safety protocols and compliance at those sites.

For a country like Bangladesh, which is hardly trying to boost its industrial development, the examples set by the law enforcement agencies by taking Sajeeb Group owners and his sons in custody will really be damaging as it will truly discourage people to set up factories. The entrepreneurs will be encouraged to shift abroad with their money and the industrial development will be in jeopardy. Only millions of social media status along with overwhelming journalism for days will not really succeed to protect the future of our country.

We truly mourn the demise of 52 souls from the factory accident at Rupganj. We can never get them back and will never be able to truly compensate their families. We also mourn for all the demised souls from previous industrial accidents too. But our focus should be to ensure industrial development and employment generation while ensuring cent per cent workplace safety. The state needs to protect both the industry owners and workers. For that, the state should not protect corrupt officials rather than high-valued taxpayers and employment generators.

We believe, adopting the practices of industrially developed countries while enabling a supporting corruption-free environment is required for the industrial development. Rather than harassing a taxpayer, it is important to trace out the real culprits behind all industrial accidents in Bangladesh. Only if we can provide a supportive and effective environment to the industry owners, the industrial development will nourish and the workers of Bangladesh will come out from the label of ‘cheap labour’.

We need to start identifying and punishing the real culprits behind the numerous industrial accidents in Bangladesh at least after the Rupganj fire incident so that, no such accidents occur in the future as result of corrupt practices. We hope the government and all relevant authorities will act to ensure that.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and
Chief Patron, Bangabandhu
Shishu Kishore Mela

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