Updated: Sep 14, 2021
“My son called me and told me a fire broke out. After a while, his colleague called me and told me my son is no more,” said Pakhi Begum, mother of an employee killed by the Rupganj Juice Factory fire. The flames began at around 5:30 PM on Thursday, July 8. It started on the first floor and quickly made its way up the other five. Located 25 kilometers east of Dhaka, the flames engulfed the windows and the walls, releasing gray smoke and attracting onlookers in surrounding areas. The fire remained ignited until Friday, as firefighters struggled to control the situation in the top two floors.
Along with Pakhi Begum’s son, the fire killed 51 others and left at least 50 injured. Among those injured were 20 people that jumped off the second and third floors of the establishment. One of them being Mohammad Saiful, who claimed that the stairwell gates in the top floors were locked by the owners, preventing dozens from escaping. Other survivors made similar claims and this was later confirmed by leading investigators. After the occurrence, many were quick to conclude that the fire was no coincidence. It was the result of the negligence and irresponsibility of the factory’s notorious owners. Habibur Rahman, the Deputy Inspector General, and the Rupganj Police Station immediately arrested and interrogated MD Abul Hashem, his four sons, and three others. After an investigation of the factory, the Electric Safety and Security Association of Bangladesh (ESSAB) discovered zero fire exits, zero fire extinguishers, and zero evacuation plans within the building’s walls. On top of that, Debashish Bardhan of the Fire Service and Civil Defence confirmed that the building “did not have approval from the fire service.” In fact, the building did not have a fire safety plan. Hence, a fatal accident was destined to happen.
But the problem goes beyond the factory’s lack of safety protocols. In fact, that specific issue is just one in a few. Behind the walls of Rupganj Factory lies a history of child labor and inadequate labor conditions. Children, women, and young men had been forced into cramped workplaces, making the place prone to the spread of diseases and fire. Zillur Rahman, The Director of Fire Brigade and Civil Defense, concluded that the fire started from pieces of machinery and raw materials being kept in the same regions of the building. “The entire building was full of combustible materials,” he said. Even a small flame could spread quickly enough to engulf everything within its perimeters.
Child Labor in Bangladesh
Child labor, in general, is no stranger to Bangladesh’s rich industrial history. In August 9, 2019, the International Union of Food (IOF) filed a complaint regarding the use of child labor in a Perfetti Van Melle’s operation in Gazipur, Bangladesh. A 2018 study on child labor in Sylhet City revealed that about 45% of the child laborers worked in a hazardous environment and 76% worked more than 11 hours a day. Almost all of the employers failed to provide their workers with proper medical, transportation, and training facilities. Many claimed to hire child workers because of their accessibility and obedience. But all failed to acknowledge the trauma and damage child labor can have on a child’s future and mental and physical health. The future of such practice is uncertain. UNICEF expects the COVID-19 pandemic to push more children into child labor, globally and in places like Bangladesh, where rates are already too high. As a result, the Bangladeshi government initiated the Child Labor National Plan in 2012, which should eradicate child labor in 2021. This plan includes strengthening of the education system and a policy that works to remove children from hazardous workplaces.
Until child labor is eradicated in Bangladesh, parents and guardians must guard and educate their young adolescents. But most importantly, employers must abstain from hiring children and promoting such behavior. With responsibility, Bangladeshis can protect young lives from incidents like that in Rupganj.
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