The issue of safety in garment factories has again been brought to the fore after the horror of Tazreen Fashions fire. The result of the inspections carried out at the garment belt in the Ashulia area by fire service officials has provided the answer as to why the factories are so susceptible to fire.
Fire service officials inspected 163 factories out of 574 in the Ashulia after the November 24 fire, until Saturday. The findings were appalling. 53 of those inspected factories lacked minimum fire safety standards. They had no fire safety licences; neither had they sufficient number of fire extinguishers, hose pipes, water reservoirs and trained workers.
That means we have kept our garment factories forever ready to be caught on fire. A BGMEA estimate states that during the last 22 years, 275 workers died in fires that broke out in garment factories. This estimate does not, however, take the 111 deaths in November 24 into account.
The outcries, far and wide after the latest incident, again seem to have pricked the conscience of the government, the factory owners and leaders of the industry's apex body BGMEA. But have such occasional awakenings helped things improve so far? Have the lives of the garment workers become any safer than before?
The man on the street has by now become blasé about such post fire disaster hullabaloos. So he fears that the initial outpourings of overwhelming outrage, and shock over the deaths and sufferings in the wake of Ashulia garment fire, will also gradually die down. The memory of the horror of the conflagration and the miseries that befell its victims may also fade into oblivion.
If such misfortune ever happens, would we have to wait for another fire-related disaster to strike another unsuspecting garment unit to remind ourselves our tasks to ensure workplace safety and improving workers' conditions?
To avoid future fires of such magnitude, we should say enough is enough and get our acts together in avoiding such future tragedies.
Unfortunately, this time too an attempt was made to cry blue murder about the bogey of saboteurs or foreign agents out to destroy the garment sector. But the sheer pressure of public criticism of callousness on the part of Tazreen Fashion's management and irresponsibility of some of its staff, who made light of the fire danger and pushed the escaping garment workers back into the inferno, forced the industry leaders to face facts.
Which is why they begged pardon before the nation for the deaths of so many workers, especially for the dead of those whose identities could not be known. They also promised to form a task force to make the garment units compliant to rules of safety.
Even so, some general members of the BGMEA did not appear to be convinced that the media criticisms of the erring garment units were well-merited. Some even expressed their strong sentiments against such criticism. They even reminded the nation of their contribution to the nation's foreign exchange basket.
True, the garment sector has made a huge contribution to the national economy. But they cannot also be unaware that the government has extended adequate facilities like tax holidays, easy bank margin against letters of credit, credit facilities and so on for their business.
On top of that, is it not the backbreaking toil of millions of garment workers that keep the machines of their factories moving round the clock? And do not they owe anything to these millions of workers for the affluent lives they live at home as well as when in foreign parts? Shouldn't they be grateful to the government, the public and particularly their workers for all such supports?
Why should they then point fingers at imaginary arson plots when it is in reality some of the factory owners' sheer indifference towards the lives of workers that remain in most cases behind the fires?
The majority of the members, especially, the leaders of the industry under BGMEA have, however, demonstrated their wisdom by accepting facts.
We are very much appreciative of such moves from the leaders of the garments sector. At the same time, we would hope that the pledges they made to ensure safety compliance in the industry will not remain only on papers. Those must be seen to have been implemented.
After the November 24 fire incident, the industry leaders and the government have concentrated on compensation for the victims and safety measures in the factories. But they should not forget the issue of better pays and working conditions for which the general workers have been agitating since long.
It must not be lost on the government and the industry leaders that the foreign buyers in their reaction after the latest garment fire advised them to listen to the workers.
The best way to address occasional vandalism, wild cat strikes and disruptive activities by extraneous elements in the garment sector is through empowering genuine factory workers through their legitimate unions. The workers have to be allowed to communicate with factory management through those unions. Once they are so empowered, outsiders or criminals will not be able to create any untoward situation in this sector.
The writer is Editor, Science & Life, The Daily Star.