Human Rights Analysis
Factory building collapse
Human casualty and safety issues
Barrister Md. Abdul Halim
Factory fire and factory accident have recently been a recurring event, especially in garment sector. The garments is no doubt a very vital industry for Bangladesh. Its contribution to national economy in terms of foreign exchange is the highest, about 80 percent and the bulk of it comes because of the women workers who constitute four-fifths of the labour force. However, these garment factory owners, despite repeated incidents of death by fire and stampede, have never paid any heed to the call for maintaining better working and safety condition in their factory premises. First factory fire occurred at Mirpur in 1990 and then on, two dozen garment factories happened to be blazing at regular intervals, killing over 450 workers and injuring another 2000 or more. The very recent Spectrum Garment industry collapse at Savar killing 70 and injuring more than 100, KTS textile tragedy in Chittagong killing 53 and injuring more than 100, the collapse of Phoenix building at Tejgaon killing 23 provide vivid picture of horrendous conditions. One commentator has termed this incident as “Clear incidence of murder and not mere accident”. He lamented, it is because none of the factory owners has so far been punished for turning industrial units into death traps.
Another commentator has, against the background of recent accidents in various factories and garment industries, expressed the view that Bangladesh is not only a land of natural disaster but also a land of man made disaster. Each time factory fire occurs the government and the BGMEA which is the garment sector's apex body reiterate the same old thing -- “the offenders will be taken into task and that the victim's family will be compensated for loss of lives” but we never know what comes of it next.
Fire by accident can occur anywhere. But if there were adequate precautions taken, these fires would not have caused so many deaths. In the fires in garment factories, people die because there are no safety standards or these standards are flouted as government is reluctant to enforce it. Reports have come to the press where the management of the garment factories, far from assuring special exist in case of fire, close down even the normal exits as if their factories were prisons, and thus people roast to death, making their acts despicable murder of the first degree. Unfortunately, so far no one from the management of the garment factories has been made to pay accordingly for any of the misdeeds.
The government, on the other hand in allowing these factories to run, flout the safety standards, and thus is as guilty as the management. The government is also guilty of failing to prosecute any of these guilty owners for their misdeeds that arise from greed. The government should immediately conduct an inspection of all the garment factories in the country and close down those which do not abide by the safety standards.
The main law dealing with the health and safety conditions in factories is the Factories Act 1965. Apart from health matters there are some safety conditions prescribed by this legislation which are hardly followed by owners of factories. Safety is a basic and primary requirement in a factory. Unless body, mind and life of workers are secured, smooth and proper working cannot be ensured in any factory. The safety provisions are absolute and obligatory in nature and the occupier of every factory is bound to follow them. They are contained in sections 22 to 42. Of these section 22 only deals with safety measures in case of fire which are as follows:
Precautions in case of fire: (sec. 22)
(i) Every factory shall be provided with such means of escape in case of fire as may be prescribed.
(ii) In every factory the doors affording exit from any room, shall not be locked or fastened so that they can be easily and immediately opened from inside while any person is within the room.
(iii) All doors, unless they are of the sliding type, shall be constructed to open outwards.
(iv) Where the door is between two rooms, it shall be constructed to open in the direction of the nearest exit from the building.
(v) No such door shall be locked or obstructed while work is being carried on in the room.
(vi) In every factory every window, door, or other exit affording means of escape in case of fire shall be distinctively marked.
(vii) In every factory there shall be provided effective and clearly audible means of giving warning in case of fire to every person employed therein.
(viii) A free passage-way giving access to each means of escape in case of fire shall be maintained for the use of all workers in every room of the factory.
Penalties: In order to protect the interest of workers in factories, both the occupier and manager of a factory are jointly and severally liable to a fine for an offence under the Act. Under section 93 any contravention by the occupier or manager of any provision of the Act or Rules would expose them to penalty of fine which may extend to taka one thousand and, if the contravention is continued after conviction, with a further fine which may extend to Taka seventy-five for each day of the period over which the contravention continues.
It is to be noted that the general penalty remains with an offence punishable with fine only and the amount of the fine is so meagre that every manager and owner of a factory can easily flout the whole provision. Secondly, the Act does not make any provision for imprisonment in case of contravention of the provisions. In India there is a provision of imprisonment up to two years as general punishment. Thus the provisions of this Act are toothless to frighten employer-cum- owners and managers to ensure safety measures in factory.
Penalties under Penal Code: Apart from penalties in the Factories Act, 1965 which is largely a civil punishment in essence, there are penalties under the Penal Code. A factory owner or manager or occupier may be charged under section 340A (Negligence leading to murder), Mischief under section 427 etc. in case of incidences of death from fire and stampede where the negligence of the owners is the main factor.
Authorities under the Act: Chapter II of the Factories Act, 1965 sets a number of authorities who are made responsible to enforce the provisions of the Act and rules framed thereunder. The government is empowered to appoint Chief Inspector and Inspectors for this purpose. Every Deputy Commissioner is an inspector for his respective district for the purpose of this Act. Apart from DCs in districts different inspectors have been appointed by the government for this purpose in big cities. Every inspector has wide power under this Act to inspect any factory any time with or without notice to the manager of the factory. Section 96 provides that whoever wilfully obstructs an Inspector in the exercise of any power conferred on him under the Act, or fails to produce on demand by the Inspector any register or other document in his custody kept in pursuance of this Act or of any rules made thereunder, or conceals or prevents any worker in a factory from appearing before, or being examined, by an Inspector, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to Taka five hundred or with both. Section 107 provides that it is only the Inspector who can file a case for taking cognisance of an offence under the Factories Act. Any other person may file a complaint but it must be under the authority or with the previous permission of the Inspector.
The Law needs changes: In view of the above, the Factories Act, 1965 needs to be amended so that it conforms to the demand of the modern times. Breach of any of the provisions of the Act should meet with both penal and civil provisions and amount of fine in case of breach of safety standards should be in the range of 25,000 taka at the minimum. Negligence on the part of the authorities under the Act should be subject to penalty also. If an Inspector fails to visit factories at a regular interval or makes any faulty report, or does not visit, or fails to prosecute the owner and manager of the factory in case of breach of safety standards, the Inspector himself should be rigorously penalised and fined. The real problem lies with the enforcement of the law by the authorities under the Act. There is inherent lack of checks and balances among government bodies. If some authorities under the Factories Act, 1965 were punished for the incidence of mass killing by fire and stampede due to non-compliance of laws pertaining to safety and security, the authorities would never forget to take care of safety measures which is their responsibility. It is the weakness or lack of enforcement by the authorities which encourages the owners to flout and violate the safety devices under the law.
The author is advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.