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Bangladesh factory fire puts new spotlight on worker safety

Improvements incomplete and focused on export businesses, say critics

Onlookers gather near a beverage and food factory on July 11, after a fire gutted the building in the Narayanganj district, near Dhaka, three days earlier.   © AFP/Jiji

DHAKA -- The recent deadly fire at a Bangladesh factory has brought fresh scrutiny of the country's record on workplace safety and labor protections, particularly in industries that serve the domestic market.

More than 50 workers were killed, and more than 20 others injured, when a fire broke out on July 8 at a food processing plant owned by Sajeeb Group in the Narayanganj district near Dhaka.

The plant made products sold under the Sajeeb Group's own brands while Sajeeb's Facebook page mentions other labels including Shezan, a popular Pakistani juice brand, and Nocilla, a chocolate spread. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Until October 2019, Sajeeb was also a distributor for brands owned by U.S. soft drink and snacks maker Mondelez. "We do not have a relationship with Sajeeb Group or any of their affiliates in Bangladesh at this time," a Mondelez Bangladesh representative said. Sajeeb also said it no longer had a relationship with Mondelez.

After the blaze, the fire safety authority said they found insufficient emergency exits and a lack of planning for fire emergencies. "The factory [was given a] fire safety plan from last October, but until now they have not implemented 1% of the work," Lt. Col. Zillur Rahman, a director with Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense, told Nikkei Asia.

Authorities are also looking at allegations that child laborers were at the factory when the fire broke out, some of whom died, according to fire service officials.

A number of Sajeeb's owners and managers have been arrested in connection with the fire, taken into custody and remanded. Sajeeb Chairman Abul Hashem earlier denied responsibility in comments to media, after the fire, saying the factory had the required fire-prevention equipment. A company spokesperson did not respond to further inquiries.

Bangladesh's factory standards came under heavy criticism after the Rana Plaza incident in April 2013, when a building housing five apparel factories collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring several thousand more. Major buyers of Bangladeshi apparel reacted sharply after the disaster and the U.S. government ended trade preferences for Bangladeshi exports in response.

Various groups of European and American buyers pressured Bangladesh's export-oriented apparel factories to improve workplace safety and labor rights, helping to improve working conditions at such plants.

However, labor leaders and other analysts in Bangladesh say little has been done to improve conditions at other factories that manufacture goods mainly for the domestic market, or to ensure that government agencies responsible for monitoring working conditions and enforcing building codes do their jobs properly.

According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS), some 169 workers have died in the last three and half years in 99 factory incidents.

Nazma Akter, general secretary of the Bangladesh Labor Congress, said Bangladeshi apparel factories improved workplace safety after strong efforts from the local and international community. "But, the latest fire incident [is a reminder] that Bangladesh factories are not safe. They are a death trap," she told Nikkei Asia.

Salman Fazlur Rahman, an aide to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and head of a committee tasked with ensuring workplace safety, said: "The image of Bangladesh has been tarnished globally due to the fire incident."

Rahman said that the government will provide financial assistance to improve the workplace environment and that factory owners "won't be allowed to sell products in the domestic market if they fail to comply with set standards."

K. M. Abdus Salam, a senior official with the Ministry of Labor and Employment, said the government is committed, and taking adequate steps to improve the working environment in factories. "The government is showing zero tolerance over the fire incident and responding very strictly," he said, adding that the owners of the factory were arrested and that teams have been formed to identify other people responsible. "We are determined to improve working conditions in domestic factories," Salam told Nikkei Asia.

Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Center for Policy Dialogue, a local think tank, said there is a belief that the compliance issue is only relevant for the export sector in Bangladesh because of demands from buyers. 

He said there was little understanding that compliance is good for production, productivity and the overall well-being of the sector. Bhattacharya said there was less pressure from buyers in domestic-oriented sectors. "On the one hand, whatever the rules, ... the enforcement is very weak. And on the other hand, consumers are still very price-conscious, not quality-conscious," he added.

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