YET another accident has claimed lives of a large number of garment workers, mostly females, Thursday night in the port city of Chittagong. Though the number of deaths is yet to be officially confirmed, unofficial figures put the death toll somewhere between 55 and 90. Many of the workers who received serious burn or other injuries are still in critical conditions. Nobody knows for sure the origin of the fire. But reports coming from different sources make it clear that the poor garment workers had little option other than falling victims to the raging inferno. The five-storied textile-cum-garment factory, allegedly, had only one exit and that too was under lock and key when the fire broke out. Many workers received fatal injuries while trying to jump out of the building and many others had to submit to death being trapped inside.
According to unofficial sources, nearly 300 workers were killed and 2000 others injured in fire incidents in garment factories across the country since 1990. Some of the victims were burnt alive and others died either from suffocation or in stampede. In another major fire incident at least 53 workers were killed and 100 others injured at Chowdhury Knitwear Factory at Narshingdi on December 08, 2000. Near about 90 garment workers were buried alive when a garment factory collapsed at Savar last year. All these accidents are happening one after another before the full glare of their owners, the leaders of the associations concerned and the government. The accidents generally follow a few visits by the VVIPs or VIPs to the places of occurrences, some words of 'grave concern' and distribution of paltry compensation money among the families of some of the victims. The safety of the workers in garment factories hardly remains anyone's business until a fresh accident, fire or otherwise, claims a few more lives.
One may raise a valid question: why should there be frequent fire incidents in garment factories alone when there are hundreds of other factories across the country? The answer is not that difficult to find. Most of the garment factories are housed in rented premises at commercial or residential areas. These buildings have not been built to accommodate factories having all the safety exits. Moreover, the main concern of some garment factory owners is profit and they bother little about the safety and security of their workers. Not only such owners deprive their workers of their due wages but also put their lives at risk. It is high time for the government to punish severely the owners of the garment factories who do not have adequate safety measures in their factories.
The parliament that adopts resolution following Bangladesh's glorious victory over Sri Lankan cricket team should also pass a condolence resolution at the tragic death of a large number poor garment workers. The lawmakers should also make a law immediately providing for tough punishment to the industry owners who fail to ensure proper safety for their workers and employees. The authorities also need to consider relocation of garment factories to some specific areas having specially designed buildings so that workers can easily escape accidents.
Last Thursday's fire incident would surely again bring to the fore the compliance issues that have been receiving serious attention from the global buyers from the developed markets. The collapse of the garment factory at Savar last year had prompted many western buyers, who are very much sensitive to the rights and welfare of the workers, to raise questions about the safety and security of the garment workers in Bangladesh. The latest incident would strengthen the hands of the alliance formed by the world's major retailers who want the Bangladesh RMG industry to comply with a number of issues, including the workers' safety and freedom of association, within a timeframe.