‘We have not built this industry in a planned way’

In light of a devastating fire at Tazreen Fashions claiming more than hundred lives, Shafiul Islam, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA), explains the industry’s efforts and flaws in an exclusive interview with Saad Hammadi

Three fire incidents in garment factories occurred within a space of three days. There is a saying, two is a coincidence but three is a trend. What do you make out of the situation?
Before any inquiry result comes we cannot say specifically what was behind it. Few people are saying it is a conspiracy, because Sumi, the worker of Debonair, was paid to set a fire. This is one angle of the inquiry. We, as BGMEA, have been doing training, monitoring, and ensuring fire safety. We have collaborated with brands, launched two films and made posters to create awareness, held three crash programmes in 2001, 2006 and 2010. After all these we have seen a very productive result in 2007, 2008 and 2009. We found no casualty even in 2011. So those have been going all good. In 2010 we have seen one incident and now the latest incident at Tazreen Fashions is shocking. We are trying to support the families who have lost their loved ones, as much as possible. We are taking utmost priority to take care of the injured patients at the hospital. We have seen them in a miserable condition at the Dhaka Medical College. Immediately we have taken initiative to shift them for better treatment, because they deserve it. If necessary we will send them abroad, if we find someone’s injury is fatal and needs to be treated abroad. Before getting any kind of inquiry result, we must not conclude with a set mind.

Western and European buyers express concerns about working conditions in Bangladesh and still there are so many accidents occurring. Where do you think lies the problem?
We are waiting for the inquiry result. If there is any flaw or any kind of negligence we will take care of them. We will request the authority to take necessary measures.

In 22 years, at least 33 fire incidents in garment factories killed at least 500 workers…
That is wrong.

This is according to a study by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies…
That study is not acceptable. Today is an era of connectivity. Today is an era of facebook and twitter, so there is nothing to hide. After 1990s if you recall, the industrial nations have used child labour, forced labour and prison labour to become industrialised. Today things are completely different. You cannot hide anything. A simple camera is good enough to disseminate an incident when it happens.

Well, the BGMEA puts the number at 275…
It is a statistic of the government. We are always questioning the credibility of the government. We are not considering that sometimes government figures are also correct. This is detrimental to the economy and industry and it is very much provocative.

But does that in any way undermine the value of the lives lost? How many times factory owners were held responsible for not complying with the fire preparedness?
We are looking into that area. We have observed that the fire bell was rung and people wanted to come out from the premises and some people stopped them and sent them back to work. We will find who they were. We will bring them to task.

But that is in regards to only the last incident. What about the others that have occurred in the past? Were they investigated to find out what led to those accidents?
We have learnt from the Chittagong incident in the KTS garments that the collapsible gate was closed. We have given instruction to all the members that your collapsible gate cannot be locked. We said there can be no block between stairways; every aisle has to be free from obstructions. Every fire extinguisher should be accessible and every hosepipe has to have water. We are taking care of these kinds of things. After all these measures, there will still be incidents. Question is, whether we are addressing them or not.

In the latest fire incident at Tazreen fashions, the owner said the factory was only two years old. It had only one exit paving in between inflammable raw materials whereas the Factory Rules 1979 clearly prohibit such an environment. As factories continue operating under such environment, do you not think both the government and owners are responsible for risking lives of the workers?
The government, especially the fire department, is doing a fantastic job within their limitations. This government has imported lot of equipments and ladder to rescue people and they have been doing a commendable job. I must praise them. We have limitations. We have to find a way of how we can prevent such situation in the future. We have to have that concentration and take it into priority.
Whenever fire people go for rescue operation, we do not look at their limitations. We have not built this industry in a planned way. It is time we respond on those areas, by creating a zone outside the city and making a proper industrial zone, where fire hydrants and all the infrastructural facilities will be there. Our members will buy that land.

Taking all of their efforts into consideration, how does a factory get the permission to operate without complying with the terms?
We have to look into that.

Many garment workers complain that gates at the factories are padlocked so that workers do not get out and materials are not stolen. In the existence of security guards and close circuit cameras, why are the gates kept padlocked?
That is why you need to take care of building awareness and education.
Can you tell me why America has been losing 3,000 people and why they are not taking care of that? Yesterday (November 27), a German factory lost lives of 14 disabled workers. Why could they not prevent it? This is an irrelevant question. Japan is a developed country and yet it loses 2,000 lives every year in fire. You can take necessary measure but you cannot guarantee that there will be no casualty.

-The interview was originally published in New Age Xtra on November 30, 2012


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