POSTED: 02:47 a.m. HST, Dec 07, 2012
DHAKA, Bangladesh >> A Bangladeshi garment factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney and other major Western companies had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before a blaze in the facility killed 112 workers, a fire official told The Associated Press.
Separately, the owner of the Tazreen factory told AP that he had only received permission to build a three-story facility but had expanded it illegally to eight stories and was adding a ninth at the time of the blaze.
The revelations about the deadliest garment fire in Bangladeshi history provide insight into the chaotic nature of safety enforcement at the country’s more than 4,000 garment factories. The powerful garment industry is responsible for 80 percent of the South Asian nation’s exports.
A Dhaka fire official said the Tazreen factory’s fire safety certification had expired on June 30, and fire officials refused to renew it because the building did not have the proper safety arrangements. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, wouldn’t provide details of the violations.
“I can’t explain more because the case is very sensitive and this is under investigation,” the official said.
He said that after a factory loses its certification, the department usually gives it some time to address its problems. If it fails to do that, the department can file a court case to get it closed, but rarely does.
“These factories should be closed but it is not an easy task. We need to follow a protracted legal battle, always there is pressure because the owners are influential. They can manage everything,” he said.
The Tazreen factory did not have any fire exits for its 1,400 workers, many of whom became trapped by the blaze. Investigators have said the death toll would have been far lower if there had been even a single emergency exit. Fire extinguishers in the building were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t know how to use them.
Delwar Hossain, the owner of the factory, told AP that he had been granted authorization for only a three-story building, but had added an extra five floors and had started construction on another.
When asked why, he responded: “My mental condition is not good, I am under pressure, please don’t ask me anything else.”
An official at the Capital Development Authority, the government body that monitors building codes in Dhaka, told AP that it knew the factory was in violation of its codes, but chose to do nothing rather than confront the powerful industry. The authority could have fined Tazreen and filed cases to force it to demolish the illegal construction, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
“I must say we have our weaknesses. We could not do that. Not only Tazreen, there are hundreds more buildings. That’s the truth,” he said.
More than half the garment factories have safety arrangements only on paper, but they are deemed untouchable, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a labor rights group.
‘’These factories should be shut down, but who will do that? Any good government inspector who wants to act tough against such rogue factories would be removed from office. Who will take that risk?” she said.
In the two weeks since the Nov. 24 blaze, the fire department has inspected 232 factories in the industrial area where Tazreen was located. It found that more than one-quarter of them — 64 — were category C, meaning they didn’t have all the proper measures in place, including fire safety licenses, fire extinguishers, water reservoirs and workers trained to fight a fire, said Dhaka fire chief M. Abdus Salam.
The factories without the proper licenses and safety measures would be shut if they fail to address the issues within a month, he said.