More Than a Dozen Children Feared Dead in Factory Fire near Dhaka

Ahammad Foyez
Dhaka
2021-07-12
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More Than a Dozen Children Feared Dead in Factory Fire near Dhaka A mother (second from right) mourns for her son who went missing after a fire broke out in a factory, in Dhaka, July 11, 2021.
AFP

More than a dozen children working as laborers at a beverage factory outside Dhaka when it caught fire last week are still missing and feared dead days after the massive blaze, their families told BenarNews on Monday.

While it was not immediately clear how many children worked at the Hashem Foods Ltd factory when it caught fire and burned down, relatives of those missing said at least 16 children – many of them underage – had not been seen since Thursday evening when the fire broke out, killing at least 51 people, according to revised information from the authorities.

“According to data submitted by the families of missing workers, there are at least 16 children among the 48 missing persons,” a senior police source who did not want his name used because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, officials have still not been able to identify the 48 workers killed – the missing children are believed to be among them – because their bodies were burned beyond recognition in the blaze, which they could not escape because one of the exits from the factory had been locked.

These victims’ DNA would have to be matched with that of their family members. Three of 51 people believed killed had jumped from the burning building on Thursday evening.

A 12-year-old girl, Shanta Moni, who was working at the factory when the blaze started, has been missing since Thursday, her mother said.

“My daughter joined the factory just three days before the incident. She was studying in class four in a madrassa [Islamic school],” her mother, Shimu Akter, told BenarNews.

“She joined the factory because of our financial crisis.”

One young girl who worked at the factory, 13-year-old Nadia Akter, was injured in the fire and is now undergoing treatment at the Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery in Dhaka, her mother said.

“I put my daughter in danger because of my poverty,” Sahana Akter told BenarNews, adding that her daughter had been working in the beverage factory for the last four months.

Md. Rakib Mia, a 15-year-old boy working at the factory’s first floor managed to escape by jumping from the building.

“I joined the factory after my mother lost her job at another factory during the COVID-19 crisis,” Rakib told BenarNews.

“I am a grade eight student and I am here because my family is poor,” he said.

On Monday, a pall has descended over Goalkandia, a village near the factory where most of its workers and their families live.

Champa Akther, who worked there along with her mother, has not stopped crying since Thursday evening. Her mother, who worked on the third floor, is missing since the fire.

“I worked on the first floor and my mother worked on the third floor. I spent all of Thursday night in front of the factory but she did not come,” Champa told BenarNews.

She said several girls were working in the factory, and that most of them had started recently, like her, because the pandemic had dented their family finances.

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Flames rise during the morning after a fire broke out at the Hashem Foods Ltd. factory in Rupganj, on the outskirts of Dhaka, July 9, 2021. [Reuters]

On Monday afternoon, smoke still could be seen rising from the burned building situated in Rupganj.

The blaze began on the ground floor of the six-story factory but all the bodies recovered were from the third floor, Md. Tanharul Islam, a Fire Service investigator, told BenarNews.

A door on the third floor that led to a staircase going to the main exit had been illegally locked, which trapped many of the workers who then perished, he said.

Islam has served a notice to the factory authorities to provide documents related to various approvals for the building.

Over the weekend, police arrested Md. Abul Hashem, chairman and managing director of the juice factory, and seven others, for the fire. They remain in custody.

Separately, an investigation has also begun into the use of child labor at Hashem Foods Ltd., news agency Agence France-Press reported.

Nasir Uddin Majumed, a police official from Rupganj who is prosecuting Hashem and the others, told BenarNews that he saw many child workers among a procession of laborers from the factory who recently protested that they had not been paid their wages.

According to Bangladesh’s labor laws 14-18-year-old workers, classified as “youth labor,” are considered legal.

Meanwhile, Md. Nuruzzaman, a manager from Hashem Foods Ltd.’s parent company Sajeeb Group, said that employing child labor violated the factory’s policy.

“Sometimes we fail to figure out the age of girls because they appear for jobs wearing the veil,” he said, adding that labor recruitment was generally done by factory-level officials, and that the owners were not involved.

Soumen Barua, the Narayanganj district in-charge of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFS), said his office was not aware that children were working in the factory.

“We are in a hugely busy time to ensure that COVID-19 health guidelines are being followed in factories and other establishments in the last one-and-a-half years,” Barua told BenarNews.

“As a result, keeping our eye on other issues has been tough for us.”

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A man holds up the picture of his missing daughter who used to work in a factory where a fire broke out, in Dhaka, July 10, 2021. [AFP]

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said that the fire at the juice factory once again highlighted poor law enforcement and oversight of factories in the country.

“The Department of Inspection for Factories gave the excuse of manpower shortage after the country’s first-ever major fire incident occurred in 1990 at Saraka Garments, Dhaka, and they still are using the same excuse,” Akter told BenarNews, referring to a blaze that claimed 32 lives.

Meanwhile, UNICEF said on Sunday it was working with Bangladesh’s government to dispatch social workers to support children and families in Rupganj.

“This tragic incident brings to light yet again that despite laws that should protect them, many children in Bangladesh are not only working, but they are working in hazardous conditions,” the United Nations agency said in a statement.

“According to the Bangladesh Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019, over four million children are working, and more than three million of these children are trapped in the worst forms of child labor that involve hazardous working conditions.”

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