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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 155 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 21 , 2004

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Another Garment Factory Tragedy:

Could it have been averted?


It started out as any normal workday for the over 3,000 workers from six garment factories jam-packed in Misco Supermarket complex at Mirpur's Dares Salam Road. But only about a couple hours later complete mayhem replaced what would have been an ordinary morning.

At around 10:30 a.m. a transformer near the building burst and sparks could be seen flying in all directions. A religious programme organised by Anjumane Rahmaniya Mayeenia Maiz Bhandari was in full swing next to the building completely taking over the narrow alley. The roofed dais constructed for the programme to take place started smoking up as the sparks set a part of it on fire. Then a pile of waste cloth from the factories caught fire and the smoke reached the verandah adjacent two garment factories --Shifa Apparels and Omega Sweaters. Someone started screaming 'fire!' All hell broke loose. Men and women most in their teens and early twenties, made a run for the main staircase, a narrow stairway barely five feet in width. By now the word had spread all over the building and panicked workers from all six factories were running for their lives. Supervisors tried to tell them not to panic. Dil Mohammad, general manager of Omega Sweaters told his workers that the fire was actually outside the building and that they should all go back to work. But it was too late. While some workers went through the emergency exits located behind the building, most of them rushed through the main stairway only to find that the gate was locked. 'Volunteers' of the religious 'mehfil' had taken it upon themselves to keep the gate shut so that their programme could go on without any disturbance from the factories. This proved to be the deciding blow for seven young women who were trampled to death in the ensuing stampede. Fifty others were injured.

Among the dead were 17-year-old Rina Akhter from Pabna who had just started work at Omega Sweater Factory from this January and Monira Begum, a 30-year-old married woman from Tangail who worked as a wheeling operator in the same factory. The other victims of what seems to be an avoidable tragedy were all from Shifa Apparels: 40-year-old Khadeja Begum from Chandpur, 26-year-old Begum from Netrokona, 30-year-old, Amena Begum from Patuakhali, 15-year-old Parveen Akhter from Netrokona, 30-year-old Munira and 25-year-old Moina. "It is still quite unreal to me," says Dil Mohammad, General Manager of Omega Sweaters. "I kept telling them there was nothing to fear as there was no fire inside the building; the fire had been put out by six fire extinguishers but they still panicked."

The recent disaster took place at a time when at least on record most factories go through fire drills and try to maintain minimum safety measures like keeping fire extinguishers, fire fighting teams etc. to adhere to BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association) directives. These have been prompted by international pressure regarding safety standards. But in spite of having a fire drill two times a month, according to Omega's general manager, two of its workers were crushed to death along with five others from Shifa Apparels.

Garment factories have been forced to take such measures, which are far from being full-proof, after several tragedies over the last several years.

In November 2000, 45 garment workers were killed and 100 injured in a factory fire in Narshingdi caused by an electrical short circuit. Among the victims were 10 children. Four workers were burnt alive, others suffocated or were electrocuted or trampled in the stampede. The stairwell was so crowded that workers tried to break open the windows and throw themselves out. Some were impaled on the pointed tops of the iron buildings surrounding the factory. Again the collapsible gates of the building were locked and the only route of escape was closed.

On August 8, 2001, 24 garment workers were killed again in a stampede due to a false alarm. The building housed four separate factories with about 2,600 workers. When the workers tried to reach the main gates and emergency exits, they found both northern and southern gates locked. Actually there were only two emergency exits, the stairways were narrow and there were no emergency lights in case of power failure. When the alarm went off the main electrical switch was shut off and the workers ran along the stairs in darkness. Many people did not even know that there were alternative exits.

In August 1999, a garment factory fire killed 12 workers. Around 150 night shift workers who were sleeping in the factory woke up choking in smoke with the factory doors locked. Most of the trapped workers had to break down a third floor wall or climb down to escape.

After the August '99 incident, the government and factory owners made bold statements on the need for strict adherence to safety rules. But in spite of the then PM's publicised grief, shock and sympathy for the loss of lives, her government offered a paltry sum of 500 Takas and 25 kg of rice to each victim's family.

On paper the BGMEA has a whole list of safety measures each garments factory must adhere to. The BGMEA's safety cell has a monitoring team that provides training to factory staff and workers on fire safety methods and regularly inspects factories according to Md. Ataur Rahman, Senior Deputy secretary, BGMEA. "We have a checklist of all the safety measures a factory should have; if there is a discrepancy we make note of it and take measures appropriately," says Rahman. This may be in the form of loss of membership from BGMEA, which however, has not happened till date. "The team practically shows how to put out a fire, how to use fire extinguishers to the factory management. Fire drills are formed with 3 teams consisting of workers and staff. They include six persons for fire fighting, six for rescue and six to administer first aid. We record how long it takes everyone to go downstairs, whether all of them could come out and so on," Rahman explains. Every factory he adds has a register to monitor the drill quality. "If there are flaws, for instance if goods block the staircase or if the wiring system is faulty, we report this to the BGMEA," says Rahman. If factories do not comply with the standards set by the BGMEA, it can withdraw benefits of the member or even suspend the factory. But usually the factory owners come around and introduce the measures according to Rahman.

Despite such apparent good intentions why have they failed to stop tragedies like the recent incident in Mirpur? Professor of BUET and architect Dr. Nizamuddin Ahmed has done much research on fire safety in building construction. He says it is basically because these buildings have not followed proper architectural norms that such horrible mishaps continue to occur.

"Most of the garment factories in the city are using buildings that are built primarily either for residential or commercial use. The landlords and, in cases, the factory owners, just break down the walls on the floor of a particular building to turn it into a garment factory," Dr Nizam says. We architects, he continues, believe in compartmentalisation of the floors. It is particularly important when fire breaks out, because in a compartmentalised building it is easy to put out a fire, as it does not get the chance to spread out.

Building Construction Rules 1996, which were enacted eight years ago are also quite vague. The law requires all building owners to build at least one staircase every 75 feet. "It is erroneous because the number of stairs in a building depends on the volume of traffic of that particular building. A wholesale law regulating the number of stairs for every type of building is illogical as it is meant to differ according to that particular building's use. You cannot enact laws that can place hospitals, residential buildings and industrial complexes under the same guidelines," Dr Nizam points out. The law is not at all specific about the numbers and types of fire fighting tools a particular industrial complex is required to keep. "It is strange because the number and type of devices to put out a fire will invariably vary from building to building," he says.

To prevent incidents of fire breaking out every factory floor should have different floor-in-charges for every alternate working day, Dr Nizam suggests. So, when fire breaks out, the in-charge will guide the co-workers, along with the people properly trained, to the place of safety. We have to keep in mind that fire spreads pretty quickly; people must be able to escape to a safe place within 2.5 minutes, the architect says.

The escape routes that are being built by some factories are lanky and steep; and have become a misnomer for fire escape. "Some architects in our country think a fire escape is a thin staircase that is to be hidden away from people's eyes. I call them the draftsmen of the clients, because they only blindly follow whatever the clients' say. Just think once what will happen if someone is unable to move in a

melee. What if 3000/5000 people just come down in a minute or two during a fire?" Dr Nizam asks. All the staircases, including the fire escapes, should be built and used as normal staircases. Architectural norms require there should be an exit door at the entrance to every floor's fire escape. It should have the capacity to resist fire for as long as 20 minutes, so that if fire breaks out on a particular floor it will not spread anywhere else in that building, he continues.

To make it more complex, the country does not have any emergency hotline. Like any other government organisation, the Fire Brigade has its own numbers, which, Dr Nizam thinks, no one remembers as "they are very difficult to memorise." But, given the traffic in the city, it is virtually impossible for the firemen to come and put out the fire within 2.5 minutes. "No one should completely depend on the fire service alone and every production unit should have its own fire-fighting appliances," he says. Most of the factories in the country do not have any smoke detector, let alone a fire sprinkler, which is a necessity in every 10 square feet area of a production complex. "I even doubt whether most of the factories have adequate fire extinguisher or not. You won't even find water in the bathrooms of some of the factories forget having a reserve to put out a fire," Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed says.

The site where the recent tragedy took place clearly manifests all the structural flaws that can lead to a disaster. The main staircase where the stampede occurred is barely 5 feet wide. The wall end of the staircase was completely broken down during the pandemonium. A quick glimpse of Shifa Apparels (which lost five workers) gives a picture of many small factories that have mushroomed all over Mirpur and other areas. Workers have barely a few inches between them, the air is suffocating with so many people jam-packed. Machines, material and humans are packed like sardines for many hours at a time and even a small-scale mishap can lead to a catastrophe. As for fire exits, the ones at this building are narrow steel staircases on the outside of the building with railings so low one wrong step will lead to a sure fall. So much for a safe safety route!

Technically all building construction in the city has to be done with the approval from RAJUK (Rajdhani Unnon Kotripokhkho). According to RAJUK laws, buildings in the city can be built for residential or commercial purposes (offices). But many garment factories have been built in such 'commercial spaces' in complete violation of such regulations. How did this happen? "While most of the rules are regularly being flouted, the organisation turns a blind eye to it. So, the buildings, which are built to house five to 10 people, are now used for industrial purposes," Dr Nizam says. This, in turn, results in the use of more electronic appliances like electric fans and machines in a decompart-mentalised open space, which have made the garment industries more prone to fire. Moreover, he continues, the electricity lines are not properly rooted in these buildings. Because of haphazard power management, incidents of fire have been increasing, he continues.

RAJUK has recently announced 139 buildings in residential areas of the city as being illegally constructed and has warned that their lease agreements would be cancelled if their position as residential buildings is not restored. But this seems to have spared the scores of claustrophobic garment factories all over Dhaka in areas such as Mirpur, Gulshan, Old Airport road and Banani. Iqbaluddin Ahmed, RAJUK's chairman, defends this strange discrepancy by saying that RAJUK will not allow any new such factories to crop up and that in any case nowadays the new ones usually locate themselves in industrial areas.

Yet the fact remains that existing factories continue to thrive in residential areas because of RAJUK's indulgence of an industry that has virtually placed the country on the global map and created employment for thousands of poor people. "International observers are very particular about facilities for workers and new factories must adhere to that to survive," says Iqbaluddin Ahmed. Location of a garment factory, therefore, says Ahmed, must be in an industrial area. Relocation seems to be a buzzword at RAJUK, BGMEA and many big wigs of the garment industry have built their factories outside the city adhering to universal safety standards.

"We cannot go on like this," says Md Ali Azim Khan, chairman, standing committee on Safety Measures, BGMEA. "Buyers are also very concerned about safety standards," says Khan, whose factory has been built on the outskirts of the city.

But, relocation, Khan adds, is very expensive, so smaller factory owners are reluctant to move. It is quite impossible for the small entrepreneurs to operate their industry, as the rate of interest is really high in the capital market.

"We cannot force them to move but we advise them. We have requested the government to give us a big space to set up a garment village where all the factories can be located. For instance we asked for the Adamjee Jute Mills area but the price the government is offering, Tk 2 lakh per katha, is too high," he says. According to Khan unless the government helps the garment factories with land and funds, relocation may still be a far off possibility.

The Ready Made Garments Sector accounts for 75% of Bangladesh's export earnings and employs around 15 lakh people. Obviously it is the most important sector of our economy. All the more reason for the government to support the factories by helping them to relocate and also make sure they are safe working places. Garment factory owners who reap the greatest benefits from the hard labour of their workers cannot afford to make half-hearted attempts to adhere to international safety standards. BGMEA has decided to compensate the families of the victims of the recent tragedy with Tk 1 lakh each. But human life, cannot be priced.


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