Trapped in a building with no fire exit and gates locked, workers were burned to a pulp. The entire industrial sector must make a commitment: #NeverAgain

It was an inferno that raged for well over 24 hours, rendering the top floors of a hulking, old fashioned block of concrete designed to maximise its utility as a manufacturing and storage facility - the total floor space was estimated by the Fire Service chief at well over 200,000 sft. Massive, heavy duty manufacturing equipment stretched across the giant expanses of its six floors, churning out everything from Shezan Juice to Nocilla and three kinds of soda pops. Combustible inputs, hazardous storage practices, and medieval employment practices meant although you'd never guess it, a horror show was always just around the corner.

That came around closing time on Thursday, July 8. The sun hadn't gone down yet in Rupganj, the very industrial belt of Narayanganj. The first reports started arriving without causing much alarm, and remarkably this would continue. Although three deaths would be reported eventually in the late-night bulletins, the entire media - habituated to investing all their faith in official sources - would go to sleep without a clue in hell about the souls they were leaving behind that night. Yes, at least one Fire Service official from the spot declared on late night tv news that there was no-one still trapped inside the building. But equally no one had said the fire had been brought under control. This can only count as dropping your guard How can it not haunt them?

And so what unfolded on Friday would fittingly suck the daylights out of them. First came the reports that scores of children seemed to be missing. It was a sickening update. The factory was owned by Hashem Foods Ltd, a subsidiary of Sajeeb Group. One of the giants of the lucrative food processing industry, that has witnessed consistent growth in the export market alongside years of growth in domestic revenues, was woefully stuck in the ways of the past - cutting every little corner they could, to cut costs as the only way to make a buck. Children were indeed employed at the facility, and in numbers you really don't get to see often these days, even in Bangladesh. The pandemic served as a convenient excuse. Locals led a vigil overnight, helpless to save family members trapped inside. Friday's Jumma prayer was approaching, yet 18 units of firefighters were still struggling to get the blaze under control. And then came the most horrific discovery of all.

Deputy Director of the Fire Service Debashish Bardhan confirmed to our sister newsagency UNB that rescue workers had to literally break down the locked collapsible gate on the building's 4th floor to go in and recover the bodies. That is where they found 49 of the bodies, burnt to a pulp overnight on the factory floor. Only one of the bodies were in a recognisable state. Narayanganj Additional Deputy Commissioner (Overall) Shamim Bepari said they would be handed over to their relatives after DNA testing to identify them. Over the past week, around 40 of the bodies were claimed by family members who were asked to come with some article of clothing or other such item with a good chance of containing a DNA sample of their missing member.

As more details emerged of the catastrophe, it became clear that the workers were left with no chance in the face of the raging inferno, that has been further fuelled by combustible items such as ghee, butter, oil and polybags stored on each floor. Even so, the workers may have had a chance at escape, if only the building code had been maintained to provide an emergency exit, or the management had not implemented the medieval practice of locking the gates of the factory floors, that carried undertones of the horrific Tazreen Garments fire in 2012 that killed at least 116.

The fire on the 5th and 6th floors took even longer to bring under control still not under control. Rescue workers were expecting more scenes of horror once they were able to finally go in, but this expectation was thankfully unmet. The previous night, 3 deaths were confirmed by the authorities of Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH) and US Bangla Medical College and Hospital in Rupganj. They are thought to have jumped to their deaths. All in all, with 52 deaths, this registered as Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster since Rana Plaza itself.

Factory Manager (Administration) Kazi Rafiqul Islam said most of the units of the factory were closed due to the pandemic. Only a few sections were open, otherwise more workers would have been caught in the blaze. Multiple floors of the building were used for storage. However, he could not say who locked the collapsible gate on the 4th floor. But this is of course a longstanding practice in Bangladeshi factories, and is almost a given in factories employing large numbers of children. Apparently at the end of shifts they tend to make off with finished items - lollipops and soda, maybe. So to stop them from 'stealing', owners take the burden of perpetrating modern slavery.

Lieutenant Colonel Zillur Rahman, director of the Fire Service, said rescue work was hampered as the collapsible gate of the building was locked. "If it had not been locked, there would not have been so many deaths," he said.

Honey...I jailed the kids

The day wasn't even out yet, when Sajeeb Group/Hashem Foods chairman Md Hashem decided to go on the media, speaking to the Daily Star. This was unexpected, and a glimmer of hope - could he be making his way to the factory perhaps, hardly 40 minutes away from the capital with the reduced holiday traffic? What we are used to of course is owners becoming unreachable after such incidents. The next you hear about them is more likely to be that they've skipped town. Md Hashem, the seasoned businessman who started the company in 1982 and has probably seen it all in football, could have set a different, obviously more humane example for his fellow businessmen that night.

But after reading the things he said, you wished he kept his mouth shut all along. It had to be one of the most brazen interviews ever published in DS. Far from channelling any sympathy or goodwill towards his fellow cadres, Hashem sounded more eager to wash his hands of the catastrophe that had played out in his factory. And what does he say?

"I didn't start the fire," he states, matter-of -factly to start. "Am I responsible for this? It is not like I went and set the fire. Neither did any manager of mine do so."

You'd expect better from a businessman with nearly 40 years of experience. This was just an incredibly stupid line to take, or a very poor attempt at distracting readers from where his responsibility did lie. Because let's face it, as the owner, he did have some responsibilities. And he failed in fulfilling every one of them.

According to Chapter 4 of the Bangladesh National Building Code, all buildings constructed for human occupancy or storage must be provided with "adequate exit facilities to permit safe and quick unaided escape of the occupants in the event of fire or other emergency." Used stairways or lifts cannot be regarded as an emergency exit. Paragraph 3.3.5 of the same chapter provides that the owner of the building shall be responsible for the safety of all occupants.

Could Md Hashem truly be oblivious of all this? Then there was this pathetically strange attempt at gaslighting: "Building an industry is one of the greatest mistakes of my life. If there is an industry, there will be workers. If there are workers, then there will be work, and if there is work, there can be fire."

If that is the line-of-reasoning you get from one of the country's leading businessmen, in effect claiming such disasters are simply inevitable, there can be no hope for the nation. It would be interesting to see how much support it could garner within the business community itself. He seemed incapable of viewing the workers as even human. Now on a roll, before ending the interview he managed to even sneak in a theory to suggest the workers may have been at fault for the fire. And yet unable to even conceive that a factory should, by law, come with fire exits.

If he could, that contrived, nonsensical line of reasoning he offered could have been - to his benefit most of all, mind you -much more useful: "Building an industry is not a bed of roses of course. If there is an industry, with adequate safety measures in place, there will be plenty of work, for plenty of workers. Even if there is a fire, we can deal with it safely and resume working with minimum disruption."

The DS gambit obviously did Hashem no favours. Nor his family, or associates. Narayanganj police started a case on a range of charges, including murder under section 302 of the Penal Code, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment. The other charges include attempt to murder and voluntarily causing serious injury, both of which are imprisonable offences.

The very next day, eight men, including Hashem and his four sons - Deputy Managing Director Hasib Bin Hashem, 39, Directors Tarek Ibrahim, 35, Tawsif Ibrahim, 33, and Tanjim Ibrahim, 21 - were picked up by police and remanded, after appearing in a Narayanganj court. The three others are Sajeeb Group Chief Executive Officer Shahan Shah Azad, 43; Hashem Foods Deputy General Manager Mamunur Rashid, 53, and Sajeeb Group Sub-Station Manager (Admin) Md Salahuddin, 30.

Remand was granted for a second time upon expiry of the first. The two youngest sons however, were granted bail, on account of their minimal involvement in the family business.

The RMG experience

Now of course the entire Bangladeshi industrial/manufacturing landscape is dominated by its readymade garment, or RMG/textile industry. The sector has witnessed a dramatic leap in safety and working conditions, and even rights in terms of or organising and association, particularly in the last 8 years. In fact it probably took much less - probably 4-5 years to bring almost the entire sector, or around 3,000 factories, upto scratch, after the twin disasters of Tazreen Garments and Rana Plaza, that occurred within 5 months of each other. They provide a live example that once you take that step, you can clean up your business and not only survive, but even go on to bigger and better things. Riding on this thriving, more confident industry, the country's exports hit the $40 billion mark for the first time in FY2019, before the pandemic.

The pandemic caused a dip in FY20, but it still recorded a very respectable $33.7 billion, and was already bouncing back in FY21, with figures released this week almost touching the pre-pandemic high, with $38.8 billion. RMG accounted for $31.5 billion of that.

Yet the push after Rana Plaza really came about thanks to a global alliance of buyers, consumers, NGOs, and activists, who were able to get the buy-in from the powerful textile lobby in the country. The threat of reduced or cancelled orders, plus the irresistible temptation of the world's cheapest labour in the country, was crucial to securing the pact (neatly divided among European and American stakeholders, plus the ILO working with the government) for the 100% export-oriented sector. That kind of stakeholder interest is just not there for the other sectors, that serve a largely domestic market.

Securing that sort of alliance for the country's entire industrial base will of course be harder. In fact, it may not even be possible. But a political commitment, coupled with steadfastness, can make up for the absence of most things. Appearing in a webinar this week, Salman F Rahman, private industry and investment affairs adviser to the prime minister, said a body like Accord and Alliance (the European and US bodies respectively) in the RMG sector, could be formed for the non-RMG industries to ensure workplace safety.

"The government will extend long-term financing and loans to those industries that want to become compliant," Salman said during the webinar on 'Reviving the leather sector in the aftermath of Covid-19'. The virtual discussion was organised jointly by the Economic Reporters' Forum (ERF), Research Policy Integration for Development (RAPID) and The Asia Foundation (TAF).

Referring to the tragic Hashem Foods fire, Salman said the government is in a serious problem regarding the compliance in the industries that produce goods for the domestic market. He said the factory fire incident has severely damaged the image of the country and the government has taken up the matter seriously.

Factory fires: Bangladesh's recurring nightmare

Workers' lives outside RMG at greater risk today

Bangladesh, the second-largest garment exporter after China, has a long history of industrial disasters and abuses, including factory fires with workers trapped behind locked exits.

Lax enforcement of safety standards and unsafe working conditions in its factories makes fires a tragedy of the commons here, largely in the apparel sector which accounts for about 80% of the country's exports.

Industrial safety in Bangladesh has repeatedly come under intense scrutiny following each disaster. Although public outcry followed each trauma and tragedy, working conditions in garment factories have remained largely unchanged.

Weeping family members of missing workers waiting anxiously to learn the fate of their loved ones has become a regular sight.

The authorities promised better safety standards after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured hundreds in 2013 in Bangladesh's apparel industry's biggest disaster.

The collapse led to better labour conditions and tougher safety rules. But many local industries failed to maintain safety compliance, leading to accidents each year.

Tragedies of past and present have often been attributed to safety lapses. Deadly fires have plagued Bangladeshi factories - namely apparel fires reached a five-year high in 2020 - showing bad days will not be over if the industry is allowed to return to past practices.

In 2020, the country saw 383 industrial fires; 273 of them occurred at apparel factories, according to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence.

Between 2012 and 2019, there were more than 150 fires and other safety incidents connected to Bangladesh's apparel industry, killing more than 1,300 people, and leaving 3,800-plus people injured, according to the Solidarity Center.

At least 2,000 workers and other staff died in at least 26 blazes in factories over the past two decades, according to the International Labor Organization.

The last five years saw 5,834 industrial fire incidents, which caused a financial loss of Tk250 crore. Dhaka division reported the highest industrial fires and Sylhet the lowest, according to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence.

At least 52 people died in a fire Thursday at an industrial building in Narayanganj, the latest industrial disaster in the country.

In July 2019, six employees of a spinning mill in Gazipur were killed in a factory fire; and 13 in a boiler explosion in 2017 in the same area.

In January 2015, at least 13 people died in a plastics factory fire in Dhaka.

In 2016, a fire triggered by a boiler explosion at Tampaco Foils Ltd in Tongi killed at least 25 people. Also, a fire broke out in a sweater factory in Gazipur the same year, killing at least four workers.

A fire killed 117 people in 2012 as it raced through the Tazreen Fashions factory. The next January, eight workers died in a fire at Smart Export Garments; in May that year, eight more workers died as a fire swept through another garment factory in the capital.

In 2010, fire also killed 21 workers at Garib and Garib Garments and 26 at Ha-Meem Group's sportswear factory.

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