Are factory owners above the law?
In Bangladesh, even though people often have to languish in prison for months without trial under minor defamation cases, it took only 10 days for Abul Hashem, the chairman of Hashem Foods Ltd, and his sons to get bail after 54 workers were killed in a deadly factory fire on July 8, 2021. The factory owner and his children were arrested on July 10, but all of them got bail by July 19, 2021. When the alleged perpetrators are powerful, can influence the investigation, and get bail quickly, justice might become uncertain.This is why, at the time, many observers expressed their doubts about whether or not justice would be delivered at all. It seems their concerns were justified because, two years after the incident, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police filed a charge sheet in court in which they had dropped the names of the chairman and his four sons.
However, four officials of the factory and two inspectors of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) have been accused of the irregularities found by the CID in the investigation, including non-compliance with the original design of the factory, production of unapproved products, expansion of the factory without permission, and lack of adequate fire safety measures. It is only right that the officials concerned of DIFE are named in the charge sheet for negligence. But the fact that the owner of the factory is not being held responsible for these serious irregularities and negligence is disappointing and totally unacceptable. The investigating officer of the case claimed that as the allegations against the owner and his four sons were not found to be true, their names have been left out of the charge sheet. But how can a factory owner not be involved in the irregularities of design, the construction of the factory, and installation of fire safety systems?
Of the irregularities mentioned in the charge sheet, there are some notable ones. Firstly, two flights of stairs were constructed even though three were approved in the design. Secondly, despite having the licence to only produce a mango juice product, the company produced many other food products such as toast, puffed rice, candy, jellies, pickles, mango bars, and soft drinks. The factory was also expanded without permission and without installing proper fire safety systems. Workers would be surrounded by nets on each floor; stairwells used to be locked; combustible materials were kept on every floor of the accident-prone building; goods would be stockpiled on factory floors around flammable substances, and children were employed in violation of the labour law.
Could any of these irregularities and acts of negligence have been implemented by management-level employees alone, without the direct participation, decisions, and approval of the factory owner? Significant investment decisions are needed for design, construction, and expansion of a factory, and only the factory owners themselves can make these decisions. Managers and executives may even be left out of the discussion when these decisions are made. The job of executives or managerial employees at a factory is to properly implement the decisions of the owner/s. Moreover, according to the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, the responsibility of ensuring workers' safety lies with the employer, which refers to both the owner/s and the management of an establishment. For example, Section 61(2) of the act, which deals with the safety of buildings and machineries, states that when it appears to an inspector that the use of any building, or any part thereof or any road, machinery or plant (or internal electrical system of a building) of an establishment is in imminent danger to human life or safety, they may, by an order in writing, address to the employer, prohibit its use until it is properly repaired or altered. Moreover, Section 53(3) of the Labour Rules, 2015 implies the responsibility of the owner in implementing safety measures. It states that "As per Section 61(2), if any owner fails to take certain measures directed by the inspector within the timeframe given by him/her, it will be considered a continuous offence i.e an offence being committed every day."
It is quite strange to think that no responsibility of the owner has been found for the deaths of 54 workers in the Hashem Foods factory fire, especially since it all happened due to a lack of safety violations as described by law in the first place. It is a sad reality that, from the last two decades, there is no precedent of factory owners being punished in any of the incidents of workers dying due to owners' negligence in ensuring workers' safety, not even after the Rana Plaza collapse or Tazreen Factory fire, the devastation of which reverberated globally.
It is, of course, a fact that too many workers died prematurely due to the extreme negligence and mismanagement by owners. And, in the Rana Plaza and Tazreen cases, although justice has not been delivered yet, at least the names of the owners were not dropped from the charge sheets as has been done in the case of Hashem Foods.
The responsibility of the factory owner is to ensure a safe working environment for workers, and the responsibility of government officials is to see whether the owner is complying with this requirement or not. If the owner does not ensure a safe working environment and if the government officials responsible for monitoring and supervision become corrupt and do not perform their duties properly, then the government's job is to impose appropriate fines and punishment so that more owners and officials do not seek profit through negligence and corruption.
Even though workers are being killed regularly in horrific industrial accidents due to the negligence of the factory owners of the country, the government seems uninterested in delivering a strict example for owners and supervisors. In fact, in the existing political settlement, our rulers do not have to answer to the poor, working-class majority of people, but only have to satisfy various local and foreign interest groups. This is why they have no interest in ensuring punishment for negligent employers and preventing workers' deaths.
Kallol Mustafa is an engineer and writer who focuses on power, energy, environment and development economics.