A burning need to learn


A DEVASTATING fire has swept through an old quarter of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. More than seventy people are known to have perished and a number of buildings destroyed. Yet, while this blaze is a terrible tragedy, it is also a testament to this country’s remarkable economic success.

Bangladesh is notorious for the series of deadly fires and structural failures in the garment industry, which culminated in the 2013 collapse of the multi-story Rana Plaza in which 1,134 workers died. The catastrophe was the culmination of a series of incidents, including the Tazreen fire five months earlier, in which 112 were burned to death. Factory owners making handsome profits manufacturing clothes and footwear for big name international brands had been ignoring every rule in the book. Their workshops had often been built without planning permission, on unstable ground and had several extra floors added regardless of the critical overload these placed on the walls and foundations. But the most egregious management failures were worker overcrowding, inadequate control of combustible materials, badly-maintained electrics and completely useless fire-fighting arrangements. In the Tazreen blaze, employees had been unable to flee because emergency fire exists were either blocked with goods or machinery or had actually been locked shut, for security reasons.

The authorities were finally galvanized into action. There were prosecutions and fines and employers were made to pay out significant compensation to families of those who had lost breadwinners. It was noted abroad however, there was no whole-hearted pursuit of the government planning and health and safety officials who through laziness, incompetence or downright corruption failed to enforce a clear set of regulations.

This left a bad taste among locals as well as some of the multinational brands that sourced their often high-priced goods from Bangladeshi manufacturers. Nevertheless, it is clear that much has changed. The big names in the industry now make a virtue of showing off to visiting foreign buyers, their often new and apparently highly-safe factory floors. And for their part those companies that have come to rely on Bangladesh to provide their goods, are no longer prepared to connive at deeply unsuitable and scandalous workshop conditions. It can therefore hopefully be argued that the thousands who perished because of unacceptable shortcuts and savings, did not die in vain.

But with this week’s awful fire in Dhaka’s Chawkbazar district, the focus moves to the small entrepreneurs whose commercial genius has underpinned the country’s transformation from an economic basket case, even twenty years ago, to a thrusting vibrant economy. The narrow streets on Chawkbazar epitomize the busy chaos of the capital of some 19 million people. In parts of the city such as this, officials have always faced a gargantuan task enforcing regulations that many small traders pretend they do not know or cannot afford to implement. Yet disasters on the scale of this week’s inferno are likely to bring about a real change in local attitudes. Fires are nothing new in the crowded capital but each tragedy brings with it a further recognition that dangerous practices can no longer be tolerated by anyone in a packed neighborhood. New, purpose-built out-of-town commercial centers are a long-term solution but for now the capital’s vigorous small and medium-size entrepreneurs much recognize the need for common sense precautions.