The government has yet to move to form a national committee to ensure workers' safety in garment industries more than 11 years after the High Court directed it to make sure that all apparel plants comply with safety regulations.
Even an effort from workers and non-governmental organisations to ensure fire safety in factories failed to see any progress due to reservations of foreign buyers of Bangladeshi garments.
Workers and local and foreign NGOs proposed a pilot fire-safety programme for garment factories after a major fire accident killed 29 workers at Spectrum factory near Dhaka in 2010. But the initiative is yet to make headway.
Serious lapses in safety measures led to yet another devastating fire at a garment factory in Ashulia on November 24. At least 111 workers were killed in the blaze at Tazreen Fashions.
Sultana Kamal, a leading legal and human rights activist, was shocked to see another fire accident in a relatively new factory.
“The factory [Tazreen Fashions] doesn't have alternative staircases and fire exits. How did the factory get the permission to operate,” asked Sultana, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK).
The HC directive to ensure workers' safety in factories came in 2001 after ASK filed a writ petition in 1997 over a fire accident that killed at least 24 people at a factory in Mirpur.
The human rights organisation also filed three writ petitions, including one linked with the fire at Tazreen Fashions, demanding punishment of the people responsible.
Sultana believes that the government's lax attitude towards workers' safety has allowed recurrence of such incidents in garment factories.
She said the government's negligence in complying with the HC directive is unforgivable.
Had the culprits been punished, this type of accidents would have not happened, she said.
In its 2001 verdict, the HC asked the government to form a national committee to supervise the setting up of garment factories and their operation to make sure that they comply with the rules and regulations.
The court also directed Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) to provide the committee with office space and staff.
BGMEA, however, said it had been unaware about the HC order on setting up of the committee.
“It was the government, not BGMEA, which was supposed to act on the HC directives on the committee's formation,” said BGMEA Vice President Siddiqur Rahman.
The initiative from workers and NGOs for a fire-safety programme in garment factories was dealt a blow as some big foreign brands preferred to go with their own fire-safety initiatives with Bangladeshi suppliers.
The safety programme to be financed by participating companies proposes an independent oversight committee that would include representatives from unions and the apparel industry.
The committee would select a fire inspection chief who would inspect participating factories and make binding recommendations. And workers would receive safety training.
“But the programme has yet to get off the ground, with some big foreign brands preferring to set up their own fire-safety initiatives with Bangladeshi suppliers,” reports The Wall Street Journal.
PVH Corp that owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein and several other brands agreed in March to join the fire safety programme. Germany's Tchibo GmbH also decided to join it in September.
But US-based Gap Inc declined to join the programme in September saying it would go with its own fire safety programme. The US company's decision was harshly criticised by the Clean Clothes Campaign.
“These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps. Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence,” Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign told the International Herald Tribune, speaking of leading international companies that buy apparel from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh that earns 80 percent of its total exports from the garment sector makes headlines in the global media at times for deadly fires in garment factories.