Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Bangladesh's fire safety record must be improved

Lives cannot be sacrificed for a quick profit by death trap buildings posing fatal hazards

Flames tearing through several buildings in an old part of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka last Wednesday. Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury / AP
Flames tearing through several buildings in an old part of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka last Wednesday. Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury / AP

One of the most shocking aspects of the Dhaka fire that swept through several tenement blocks and killed 81 people last Wednesday was how inured Bangladeshis have become to the frequency of such incidents.

“A disaster waiting to happen,” declared the country’s Daily Star newspaper, which pointed out that authorities had failed to clamp down on fire hazards after a blaze in the city’s Nimtoli chemical warehouse claimed more than 120 lives in 2010.

Much was promised then, as it was after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013, killing 1,138 garment workers, and the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire in Dhaka, claiming the lives of 113 workers making clothes for western brands like Walmart, who were unable to escape because exits were blocked. Yet too little has changed.

Devastating blazes are still a common occurrence in a country whose fire safety record often falls short of even the most basic requirements.

A 2017 University of Leeds study into fire safety in Bangladesh found workplace conditions in the labour-intensive readymade garment industry regularly posed potentially fatal risks.

The country’s 4,200 garment factories generate 80 per cent of its foreign earnings, amounting to more than $28 billion a year, but accidents on factory floors are frighteningly frequent.

A number of the apartments in last week’s fire were residential but were being used to store chemicals and dyes for the garment industry. It was a question of when, not if, the crowded tenements in the most densely populated city in the world became a death trap.

Yet despite the risks, the Bangladeshi government has imposed a restraining order on the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to make textile-related workplaces safer.

After the court action in December 2018, the accord – set up under a five-year deal following the Rana Plaza tragedy – can no longer operate nor take action against factory owners who put workers’ lives at risk.

The next court hearing will be in April, the six-year anniversary of Rana Plaza. Accord managers say while they have reduced the number of factory incidents, they have “deep concerns” that the authorities and manufacturers have failed to implement enough of their recommendations or a transition plan to prevent putting millions more lives at risk.

They want more time to ensure no worker need fear being killed or injured at work in an easily preventable incident. Regular inspections, basic safety measures and globally recognised fire prevention standards are the least they should be able to expect, because lives cannot be sacrificed for the sake of turning a quick profit.

Updated: February 23, 2019 08:23 PM