Fire safety issue the country's highest foreign currency earning sector the apparel industry --- has emerged as a key issue that could seriously hurt the export projections.
Both the garments owners and the government must pay immediate attention to the issue of fire safety to ensure much better working conditions inside the factories to take the industry at a level where it needs to be.
The country's worst ever fire incident at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia has shown an unfortunate but common picture about how we poorly deal with our workers.
The latest fire tragedy that claimed 112 lives and injured many other had shocked the country of 160 million.
At least twenty one workers were charred to death and dozens others injured in another fire incident at Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Gazipur in 2010 and one of the country's leading clothing firm Ha-Meem Group also went through a fire tragedy in the same year in which 23 workers were burnt to death.
Although incidents of fire have been claiming lives in RMG units the owners have tactfully avoided the important issue of fire safety, which can ensure much better production.
It is widely believed that much better working conditions can ensure higher labour productivity, leading to greater profit earning by the owners.
The manufacturers fowllowing fire accidents were heard claiming themselves were to be well - compliant having enough fire safety measure to protect goods and workers.
In the wake of the deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions, firemen started investigation and they so far have identified 25 per cent of the factories in having inadequate fire safety measures.
The number of such factories will be much more as the fire department could not visit a significant number of factories for not having adequate manpower and other logistics problems.
Fire Service and civil Defense is a neglected state-run department in the country that handles fire and other disasters, natural or otherwise, with a manpower strength of 6,200 people. Even, the department does not have enough equipment or technology to successfully tackle big fire incidents.
According to the fire department, the country has only 256 fire stations and Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC), the highest national authority for approving development activities, recently approved 156 projects of installing such stations.
The firemen could not set up a fire station adjacent to the country's key apparel hub, Ashulia, for long because of not getting land to do so.
Readymade garment (RMG) sector is the second largest exporter of the country after China and the nation dreams of achieving the number one spot as China has started taking initiatives to source apparels from Bangladesh to avoid growing production cost there.
Nearly 350 apparel units in the Ashulia belt remained closed for several days after the factory fire because of workers' unrest.
The recent fire incident also hit the headlines of international media who criticised the global clothing retailers for their contracts to buy garment products from Bangladesh where minimum fire safety initiatives are not followed.
Following the reports, Wal-mart cancelled the deal with a local apparel group that gave sub-contract to Tazreen Fashions.
Nearly 600 workers have perished in factory fires and other workplace safety disasters in Bangladesh since 2006 and thousands have been injured. It would cost the brands and retailers less than 10 cents per garment to make their factories in that country safe and put an end to this horror, according to recent report published by the New York Times at its opinion page.
Besides taking lives of workers, the fire incidents have another negative impact on the biggest sector that have 25 per cent shortage of skilled workers.
So, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country's apex apparel trade body, should take the issue very seriously and take immediate fire-preventing measures for their own sustainability.
It is the question of sustainability as a possibility arose of shifting export orders to Myanmar following a recent move by developed countries to lift economic embargo on the next door.
Even, cheap labour will also be available in Myanmar, for which the global buyers have so far chosen Bangladesh. So, the garment producers should not take anything lightly.
The garment industry is the sector that contributed nearly US$ 19 billion out of US$ 23 billion that the overpopulated nation fetched in the last (2011-2012) financial year.
The government formed a factory Inspection wing under the Ministry of Labour to strictly monitor safety issues inside the factories but did not give enough capacity and power to ensure pro-production atmosphere in the industrial units, leading to repeated incidents of fire and workers' unrest.
The country has a total of 52 factory inspectors in three categories - but there are nearly 16,000 registered factories only in Dhaka division according to the data of the wing. With such a small number of inspectors, it is very difficult to ensure safety standards is mills and factories.
The inspection wing filed cases against factories having poor safety and infrastructure facilities but could not give enough punishment to those because of the legal 100 peoples that allow the factory owners to get away paying only Tk 5,000 in penalty.
The wing also does not have the power of spot trial as enjoyed by the other state-driven departments or agencies.
Apparel companies claim they are regularly inspecting their factories and ensuring that they are safe, yet every deadly fire in recent years has happened at a factory that had been subject to numerous such inspections.
The apparel industry of nearly 3.5 million workers is not only the leading export earner but also a driving force for the government as it will largely depend on the RMG sector to reach its goal of becoming a middle income nation.
For reaching the status, Bangladesh needs growth at a rate of minimum eight per cent and the apparel industry will have to play a very important role for making the vision into reality and it will become very tough for the government to achieve the vision leaving its main force at risk.
According to apparel manufacturers, export earning of the industry need to soar to US$ 50 billion after 10 years.
The government should chalk out special action plans like setting up special economic zones (SEZs) at various parts of the country where all kinds of facilities, including fire prevention measures and dormitories for workers, will be available to ensure uninterrupted production.
Many brands and retailers will try to placate public opinion with promises to improve their inspection systems; they will insist that this is all that is needed. The public should not be fooled: unless global companies are willing to raise prices for Bangladesh suppliers and get workplace safety commitments implemented there will be more fires and more deaths.
There are some recommendations that the government and apparel owners should look into. Theses are the formation of workers' health and safety committees, involvement of trade unions in the implementation of effective fire prevention programme, capacity building of workers and managers to proactively resolve issues, basic fire safety infrastructure renovation, regular fire safety trainings and independent, transparent factory inspections.
Several leading companies are beginning to work with unions, international and local NGOs, suppliers and government regulators to develop fire safety protocols. Multi-stakeholder collaborations are the only way to stop recurrence of Tajreen live fire incident.
The writer is staff reporter of the FE