Tampaco Foils, Hashem Foods, Churihatta's makeshift chemical godowns. To that list we can now add the name of Sitakunda's BM Container Depot, the latest site of a major industrial disaster in Bangladesh costing a huge loss of lives. What set this one apart, was that on top of the lives of workers, a shocking lapse in disclosure ended up causing the greatest tragedy in the history of the Fire Service in Bangladesh, as the presence of the oxidising agent hydrogen peroxide most likely caused a huge explosion while firefighters and other first responders were on the scene to fight an initial blaze.
This blast, said to have been felt as far as 4 kilometres away from the epicentre, totally transformed the scale of the disaster. At least 9 firefighters are apprehended to have died from the sheer force and intensity of this blast, that left an apocalyptic scene of severed limbs strewn around the depot. It was followed by a series of smaller explosions, and eventually it wasn't until the fourth day on from the fire first breaking out, some 86 hours later, that the Army working in conjunction with the Fire Service was able to finally put it out.
The world woke up to Bangladesh's hazardous factory conditions in 2012 when a fire at Tazreen Fashions, which made goods for Walmart Inc and Sears Holdings, killed 112 workers. The disaster was followed by the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza a year later, killing 1,135 garment workers and triggering a wave of public outrage around the world about the human cost of cheap clothes. That prompted global retailers, foreign governments and international agencies like the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) to act to help the world's second-largest garments industry improve safety and labour conditions. The IFC established a five-year, $40 million credit facility for local banks to help garments and related factories upgrade their structural, electrical, and fire safety standards.
Bangladesh saw its last major garments factory fire in early 2017 in which six workers were killed. But fires in other commercial settings or factories, making everything from fans to fruit juices, have killed at least 200 since then and injured many more.
"The safety is more in the garments sector than in other industries because there is an international compliance-monitoring system, and no compliance means no orders," said Jewel Das, general secretary of the Bangladesh Association of Fire Consultants that works with the government on fire audits. "But in other sectors, there is no international monitoring system and the national monitoring system is not strong."
The question, then, is whether in the absence of the compulsion posed by foreign buyers threatening to cut orders, can Bangladeshi businesses be relied upon to prioritise occupational health and safety conditions for their workers? At this point, the only answer we can hazard to that question is a 'No'. And that means the government has to step in, because it alone has the authority to threaten business over issues of non-compliance. It has to do this through the DIFE (the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments), and working perhaps in conjunction with the ILO, with which it did already have a smaller inspection program for the RMG industry running in parallel to Accord and Alliance. The RMG industry has shown it can be done. The how and why may not be very flattering to us as a nation, but it is insight that can be used to save lives. What could be more important than that?
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