Fire and stairs stalk workers

Rubina is yet to recover from the dreadful memories of a fire at the Micro Garments Factory in Mirpur in November 2001. The blaze claimed the lives of 23 of her colleagues and friends, who died in the stampede while running down the narrow staircase of the multistoried factory building towards safety, a destination they never reached.

"The fire alarm was raised and hundreds of workers rushed towards the only exit route through the staircase not knowing they were going into a death-trap," said Rubina. " There was no coordination, no-one told us what to do in such situations. Besides, the staircase was so cramped that it would have been impossible even in an orderly manner for all the people to get out in time," said the young woman still feeling the horror that unfolded right in front of her eyes. " I have lost so many near and dear ones. It could have been me also."

That incident was the last reported case of fatal fire in garments factories but fear still persists among hundreds and thousands of young men and women working in the ready made garments industry

According to Bangladesh Garment Manufactures and Exports Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), between 1990-2001 at least 198 garments workers died in fire related incidents and more than 1000 have been injured. Interestingly, out of 14 serious incidents of fire across the country during this period, 13 have occurred in Dhaka.
The risks of fire and fire related incidents in most of the 2,308 authorised garments units in the city remain very high. This is because the authorities responsible for ensuring safe work atmosphere for thousands of workers appear to be reluctant in acting against factory owners who ignore the basic safety requirements of their units.

According to sources inside the industry, owners get 'preferential' treatment. As the ready-made garment (RMG) sector is the largest foreign currency earner of the country, the authorities apparently go soft on the owners because upsetting them can evoke a negative reaction from the foreign buyers. The steps that have been taken to address the safety situation are drenched in controversy too. The BGMEA, with support from the government has made it mandatory for every factory to have an emergency or fire exit to avoid fire related casualties.

But a good number of factories in the city follow this ruling virtually on paper only by installing cheap and flimsy staircases which engineers say, might not withstand the emergency rush of people and could collapse. There are allegations too that fire safety certificates can be 'bought' from the authorities.

BGMEA and Fire Service and Civil Defence officials admit that some of the fire exits are faulty but they defend themselves by saying that those were built before the formulation of the fire protection law. According to Fire Service Ordinance, a fire safety license has to be obtained before establishing a garment factory. An industry established in a multistoried building has to maintain emergency exits. These factories must also be equipped with heat detectors, smoke detectors and an alternative electricity system.

About 105 garment factories in Goran under the Khilgaon Police Station are certified by Fire Service and Civil Defence. But local people say that there are more than 250 factories in the area which do not have any fire escapes. Fire Service and Civil Defence officials say that only four inspectors are responsible for 2,308 garment units of Dhaka city. With such an inadequate inspection team, it is no wonder that the safety measures in the garments industry is hardly monitored.

So for Rubina and some 300,000 of her fellow workers in the garments sector, days continue to pass in fear of another catastrophe

(Source: The Daily Star, April 23, 2003)

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