Roaring Fires: An Industrial Nightmare

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By Maimun Rashid Mustafa

RMG factories need careful observation since many of them might fall prey to the fire incidents due to lack of precaution

The Rana Plaza disaster became a blasphemous branding for the country’s RMG sector. While those tragic memories still bleed fresh in our hearts, 2019 has reawakened a new terror: the fear of fire. In this article, we explore why fire hazards in RMG factories should be a concern for us all.

Hell Hath No Fury
16,000 fire incidents over 10 years and the 1500 plus lives that have been taken across Bangladesh demonstrate that this country’s hazardous statistics will put us in the history books for all the wrong reasons. The most spoken about major fire incident which occurred in Tazreen Fashions Ltd. could be recognized as one of the largest fire tragedies in the history of RMG sector of Bangladesh with over 111 deaths and injury of more than 300 workers. Similarly, the chemical factory fire of Nimtoli resulted in the loss of lives of 124 people and became a day of unspeakable mourning.

Apparels in Wonderland
Unfortunately living in Bangladesh we have been developing resistance to disaster shock at higher rates than that of bacteria to antibiotics. While the world watches as our buildings burns, we forget and learn to move on. It is a Wonderland to people from western nations at how we toil for so less. However, even if our resilience allows us to put Rana Plaza and Nimtoli in the past would the industry that contributes 81% to our exports be able to justify the cost of human lives if more massive fires started? What would be the devastation to the physical investments? More importantly, how does it impact us as a nation?

Implosion in an Industry
According to the BGMEA, its members employ directly around 3.6 million people, of which 80% are women. The rapid growing industry sees factories occupying buildings not built for RMG purposes, as they are built without having required permits and standards from the concerned authority while utilizing the cheapest means. Unauthorized floors and increased machinery or workforce over capacity complicate safety issues, add to that excess day and night production schedules. All of this results in widespread safety problems including faulty electrical circuits, unsafe buildings, inadequate emergency exits, and insufficient firefighting equipment. Even if there are rules in the factories, they take a cavalier approach to implementing them, that is, rules are meant to be broken.

Firestarter
The reasons behind the fire in factories remain quite shocking. According to a journal publication in the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, the causes of fires in the RMG factories are majorly attributed to electric short circuit and surprisingly the lowest was overheating. Low-quality electric apparatus and improper checking of electric apparatus, boiler as well as transformer explosion, storage of flammable materials were other major causes. The workers surveyed also reported other reasons such as friction of machinery, smoking, sabotages, lack of caution, bad housekeeping, etc. as the reasons behind fires in the factories.

The Economics of Burn Marks
A majority of those impacted by the fire is inevitably the workers and staff. The factory owners are subsequently hampered due to their huge investment for the establishment and respective loans taken from financial institutions. Thus, if any accident happens to the factory, the owners default on loans if insurance claims are not successfully collected. To restore the business, they have to take more capital from financial institutions. As a result, financial institutions often become indirect victims of factory fires. This domino effect impacts all associated directly or indirectly with the project and the people associated with the RMG. A single fire not only hampers the people but damages in terms of brand image, the promoters as well as the country at large. International buyers feel less interested in the source from accident-prone companies and countries. This eventually impacts the revenue of the national exchequer.

Giving Better Trade not Costlier Aid
While it is easy to blame our local entrepreneurs for being greedy profit mongers, the responsibility must also fall upon the sourcing parent brand and consumers, many of whom are from the western world. If funds can be collected almost instantaneously to rebuild historic monuments, then just a few cents increase per apparel would help the lives of the workers through a trickle down from the business owners’ revenues. To ensure proper utilization, payments may be tied to improved safety structure compliance. While we do applaud the western nations for intervening to increase safety standards and thus increasing costs of production, it may be deemed more beneficial for all concerned if the end buyer paid higher for the label ‘Made in Bangladesh’. Exploitation is not just a developing country problem but an issue of the international supply chain.

Stitching Tomorrow
The RMG industry’s pride lies in investing in the sustainability of our factories. Our people’s safety is quintessential to not just human monetary gains but the long term branding of our country’s largest foreign currency earner. All concerned with the RMG industry may resonate with American physicist Amory Lovins’s words: Fire made us human, fossil fuels made us modern, but now we need a new fire that makes us safe, secure, healthy and durable.

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