Garment Factory Tragedy:
Could it have been averted?
MEHREEN AMIN and AHMEDE HUSSAIN
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.
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.
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."
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.
factories have been forced to take such measures, which
are far from being full-proof, after several tragedies
over the last several years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.