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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The owner of Spectrum, a factory that collapsed in 2005 resulting in 62 deaths has apparently been having nightmares for the last seven years. This evening, he recollected of having given till date Tk 21,000 to the labour court, Tk 79,000 to the BGMEA totalling Tk 100,000, a price tag for a dead worker’s life. He told me that he had gone beyond the rule of law and had paid another 100k per family in 2011, six years after the incident. Meanwhile, his buyers had helped and altogether each affected family has received more than Tk 900,000 for their loss. At his end, he had incurred a loss of Tk 45 crore overnight. Whether the sum given to the workers’ families was enough is another question, but that the owner still hasn’t woken up from his bad dream and promises to pay the workers every time he has extra money in his pocket at least gives me hope that a few of us have conscience.

When I say ‘us’, I refer to the manufacturing and exporters’ club that smells of violation and non-compliance. The rules are all set. We are supposed to listen to the law of the land. As per the Bangladesh gazette 29/5/2008, exit access, exit, and an exit discharge fall under the compulsory requirements for setting up a factory unit. Every factory which has more than 50 workers must have minimum width for passages of at least 1.1 meters; no factory that has more than a thousand workers can be exempted from the basic requirement of three exits; no factory can escape the rule of law which clearly states that there has to be at least one fire extinguisher per every 5500 square feet with 25 per cent 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 each floor 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 per cent of workers per factory being trained by the Fire Service and Civil Defence, there are hundreds of applications pending on the BGMEA’s desk. Unfortunately, in spite of charging a straight Tk 16500 for 40 workers per application, neither the BGMEA nor the Fire Service has adequate manpower to train our factories. As far as licenses go, things have just gotten worse lately. Some check and issue licenses with diligence; some skip every process and issues them without checking. 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 pressure… While the list could go on, I would also like to point to the excessive media coverage that scars the industry.

Reports on private television channels are still showing images of a factory building burning. The electronic media is still covering the event with at least one reporter stationed there and giving a brief 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 the 24 deaths in 2001 Maico Sweater, the 9 in Nisco Supermarket building, and the 23 at Shan Knitting and of course the 64 in the building collapse of Spectrum, 2005, the records wreak tragedy.

Tazreen Fashion Limited, a unit of Tuba Group, situated at Nishchintapur, Jirabo, Savar is reported to be exporting US 35 million dollars by producing knit items. A factory which has been set up only three years ago, with a sprawling 49000 square feet equipped with 12 production lines, 1200 workers, with 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 manoeuvre the car through the road, as there were hundreds of workers from other factories who were all over the place, with their mobile phones, taking pictures of the charred building. I wondered about how long could it have had taken for the fire service trucks to reach the destination. 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 workers. Police and fire service personnel swarmed the site along with 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 4th floor gate had remained locked in spite of the workers burning in there.

The point is, for how long can the community of manufacturers live with murder?

Rubana Huq is the managing director of Mohammadi Group.

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