The existing rules for setting up factories are stringent enough to prevent large-scale accidents. But accidents continue to happen due to factory owners' negligence in ensuring workplace safety and regulators' reluctance to enforce the relevant laws.
To run a factory, entrepreneurs require more than two dozen permissions from various authorities, at least seven of them directly related to workers' safety.
The authorities are Rajuk, Fire Service and Civil Defence, environment department, chief inspector of factories, boiler licensing authority, insurance companies and the business association concerned.
In addition, factory owners must take permission from the Export Promotion Bureau, Board of Investment, the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms and the Controller of Imports and Exports. These offices basically deal with money matters but can still interfere in ensuring workplace safety.
The issue of workers' safety has come to the fore following the Tazreen Fashions fire that claimed at least 111 lives. An investigation into the blaze is on but it is clear that the factory had poor safety measures in place.
Industry people say rampant corruption by regulators and factory owners' "greed" for excessive profit lead to many such accidents.
“Factory owners without having to put in place any safety measures can get licences from the government authorities in exchange for bribe,” a Gazipur-based garment factory director told The Daily Star.
Officials responsible for visiting factories to check safety issues go to the factories to collect Tk 5,000-10,000 every month, said the apparel maker, adding that the same goes with the Office of the Chief Inspector of the Factories, the top authority to ensure compliance and workers' safety.
And owners for their part care little about safety of the workers, he said, requesting anonymity.
For example, he adds, garment owners sometimes discourage workers from taking part in monthly fire drills as it "would cost them production loss".
In case of Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia, the building had no approval from Rajuk in the first place. Then it was faultily designed: It had no overhead or underground water reservoir mandatory to get fire safety clearance from the fire service.
A top Rajuk official on condition of anonymity confirmed that Tazreen authorities had no permission to set up the factory. He, however, would not comment on how an eight-storey building could be erected without the Rajuk having noticed it.
Also, the building's emergency exits led to the ground floor. Under the rules, emergency exits should lead outside the building. Worse, the authorities built a storeroom blocking the passageways, defying building code.
In spite of these major violations of the rules, Tazreen had no problem in getting licences from various regulators. The fire service department and the office of the chief inspector of factories issued licence to the factory in 2010 and renewed it in 2011 and 2012.
Law has it that these two authorities will issue licences only after they have seen the factory has adequate road space, exit stairs (at least two for less than 500 workers and at least three for over 500), fire extinguishers and firefighting equipment, including 10 gas masks in each section.
According to basic compliance check list, factory evacuation drills must be conducted every month and 25 percent of the total workers should be trained in firefighting. There should be a firefighting committee in every factory comprised of a firefighting team, a salvage team, an assisting team and a cordon team.
Moreover, there should be first aid boxes, resident doctors and mesh gloves, among other things.
Of them all, Tazreen had just 78 fire extinguishers.
Fire service Director (operations and maintenance) Major Muhammad Mahboob said, “We find everything okay during our inspection. But things change later."
For instance, he added, “The storeroom on the ground floor was not there [during our visit]; they [management] built it later.”
Giasuddin Bhuiyan, joint secretary and in-charge of fire safety cell of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said Tazreen workers were not at all trained in firefighting.
“There were 78 fire extinguishers in the building, but not a single one was used,” said Giasuddin, also a former official of the fire service department.
Officials from other government agencies such as environment department, boiler licensing authority, Power Development Board, Wasa and Titas Gas also make regular visits to factories.
They make these visits often to make money, not to see safety issues, businesspeople say.
Insurers also have a role to play as export-oriented garment makers must have insurance.
“We are concerned. We have formed a committee after the Tazreen fire to devise a policy for the insurers in the wake of increasing number of accidents,” said Sheikh Kabir Hossain, president of Bangladesh Insurance Association.
Contacted, Tazreen Fashions Managing Director Delowar Hossain on Monday said he had Rajuk's approval for a three-storey building.
Asked about his violating other building codes and workers' safety rules, Delowar said over the phone: "Please don't ask me anything. I'm not in a condition to speak now."