‘Where’s My Daughter’s Body?’: Deadly Fire Exposes Child Labour at a Snack Factory

In a factory fire that killed 51, activists say at least 16 children died while making snacks meant for children their own age.

Jul 29 2021, 10:22am

The tragedy struck 10 days after she left home.

Fourteen-year-old Compa Rani Bormon arrived in one of Bangladesh’s thriving industrial districts, Narayanganj, from her quiet village Chandpur, with big dreams of supporting her family. 

“She was the third child of my five children,” her father Porva Chandra Bormon, a fish vendor, told VICE World News. 

The pandemic disrupted, among other things, education in one of the world’s most populous countries. So Porva sent his children to factories around Dhaka to work until their school reopened. 

Bormon acquired a false birth certificate – to make it appear she was an adult – with the help of her classmates on June 25. 

On June 28, she started work at a prominent food and drink factory called Hashem Foods Limited. Her monthly wage was set at 5,300 taka ($63), with overtime pay of 3,000 taka ($35).

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By July 9, she was dead. 

Compa is one of the 51 victims who officials say died in the fire at Hashem Food factory’s six-storey building. The blaze - one of the worst tragedies in Bangladesh’s recent history - was so deadly that it took 18 fire engines 16 hours to control. Only three bodies have been identified, while 48 are beyond recognition. 

A crowd watches on as fire engulfed the Hashem Foods Ltd. factory in Narayanganj district. Photo: by KM Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images

As gruesome details came out, local news outlets reported that children, too, had burned to death. UNICEF Bangladesh said they were “as many as 16 or more.” 

A preliminary probe also found that the factory employees had locked the only exit door, trapping the workers. At least three jumped off the building as the fire raged. 

“My daughter’s last words were that she had been locked in, and couldn’t breathe properly,” said Porva Chandra Bormon.

Bangladesh’s Factories Rules ban children under 14 years from any job, but allows teenagers aged 14 or older to work in any occupation. The law also allows 12-year-olds to do “light work” that does not put them in danger. Data by the US Department of Labor revealed that 4.5 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 in Bangladesh engage in exploitative work to support their families. 

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At first, the Sajeeb Group, which owns Hashem Food factory, denied allegations it employed children as young as 11. “We did not make any child work,” Sajeeb Group CEO Shahan Shah Azad told Dhaka Tribune shortly after the incident. “But if someone worked there by concealing their age, there is nothing we can do.”

Brigadier General Md Sazzad Hussain, director general of the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, told VICE World News that the factory’s third floor had air-conditioning, and the workers were assured that the fire would not reach them, but it did.

‘One of my daughter’s colleagues, Smrity, who miraculously escaped the fire, told me a factory employee moved everyone to the third floor, and the only exit was locked,” said Porva. 

A family member called Bormon on her cellphone the moment they learned about the fire. “My daughter’s last words were that she had been locked in, and couldn’t breathe properly,” Porva said. 

“We did not make any child work. But if someone worked there by concealing their age, there is nothing we can do,” Sajeeb Group CEO Shahan Shah Azad told media shortly after the fire.

He still hasn’t found his daughter’s body. “Hospital staff said the bodies are too charred to be recognised,” he said. “We haven’t been able to perform her last rites.”

The Sajeeb Group’s chairman MA Hashem blamed “workers’ carelessness” for the fire. He was arrested with his four sons. They were released on bail last week. In a WhatsApp statement to VICE World News, officials from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Bangladesh Police’s intelligence wing that is investigating the case, stated that initial findings point to an electric short circuit as the cause of fire. 

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Hussain, from the fire and civil defence department, said the factory owners submitted a fire safety plan in October 2020. “But they didn’t comply with the two warnings we had issued since then,” said Hussain. 

“What is most harrowing is that helpless children died while producing treats such as lollipops and chocolate spreads that we feed our own children, inside a six-story death trap we chose not to see,” said labour law activist Taqbir Huda.

CID officials are currently doing DNA tests on the charred bodies. “Primary examination of the available birth documents and the entries into the registers do not prove that any of the victims were underaged,” the officials said regarding allegations of child labour. 

On its website, the Sajeeb Group issued a statement asking for the “forgiveness of the souls of the victims of the fire.” 

“We are and will be by the side of the families of the injured and the dead in this crisis,” the company said. 

Labour law and human rights activists, however, say that this is not the first time children have been put at risk by working in Bangladesh’s factories.

Labour law activist Taqbir Huda told VICE World News that it’s possible more children were trapped in the factory that people don’t know about. “The story is the same. Greedy corporations store hazardous materials inside factories without investing in mandatory fire and building safety, and putting workers’ lives in acute yet preventable danger,” he said, referring to the infamous fire in Tazreen Fashions building in Dhaka that killed at least 112, and other incidents that followed. 

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“What is most harrowing in this case is that helpless children died while producing treats such as lollipops and chocolate spreads that we feed our own children, inside a six-story death trap we chose not to see,” said Huda.

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A UNICEF household survey said over three million Bangladeshi children are working jobs under hazardous conditions. The country is also listed in the UN’s “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” report, which includes children engaged in dangerous activities and who work more than 48 hours a week. 

On July 16, a global child labour research study listed some of these dangerous conditions. AKM Maksud, the lead researcher of the report and founder of Bangladeshi non-profit Grambangla Unnayan Committee, told VICE World News that hiding the age of child labourers is very common because of the nature of their work. 

“If workers were earning decent wages, they wouldn't be sending their children to factories,” said Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity.

“In some cases, factory owners themselves facilitate the falsification of birth certificates,” Maksud said. 

In his research that primarily covered leather factories, Maksud found children doing everything from slaughtering animals to dealing with sharp instruments and chemicals like acid. 

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Maksud also found that it’s common for children to acquire substance addictions in factories. “I’ve seen kids as young as six going through that,” he said. 

There is also mounting criticism against the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) for overlooking Hashem Food factory’s faltering workplace safety. The DIFE has over 90,000 factories registered with it, and some 300 inspectors to monitor them across Bangladesh. 

In Narayanganj itself, there are 3,450 DIFE-registered factories, with only 14 labour inspectors assigned to them. 

Advocate Jafrul Hasan Sharif, a labour law expert and a Supreme Court lawyer, told VICE World News that child labour is easy to spot in Narayanganj factories. “But nobody monitors them,” he said. “The inspection department is severely short-handed.”

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The Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Act 2018 penalises anybody employing children with a 5,000 taka ($59) fine. The compensation a family gets in case of death and injury is only 200,000 taka ($2,359).

“As long as the price for causing the death of a worker under labour law is a measly 200,000 taka, employers will continue to dispose of workers' lives as the cost of doing so is still lower than the one ensuring occupational safety,” said Huda.

Kalpona Akter, the founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity that is helping workers’ families seek justice, told VICE World News that it’s difficult to entirely eliminate child labour. 

“If workers were earning decent wages, they wouldn't be sending their children to factories,” said Akter. Maksud added that children are cheaper to hire. “They get paid one-third of the salary of an adult.” 

“As long as the price for causing the death of a worker under labour law is a measly 200,000 taka, employers will continue to dispose of workers' lives as the cost of doing so is still lower than the one ensuring occupational safety,” said Taqbir Huda.

The Hashem Food factory fire is a “cruel but necessary reminder” of how disposable workers’ lives are in the country’s hazardous factories, and the impunity with which employers continue, said Huda. “Even our labour law normalises such deaths by calling it ‘industrial accidents’. We should stop normalising such killings in the name of ‘accidents’, and call it what it is: corporate manslaughter.”

Since the fire, the Sajeeb Group promised 200,000 taka ($2,359) to each of the affected families but on the condition that they will not ask for more in the future. For Porva, the fish vendor, the promised compensation he agreed to doesn’t amount to anything. 

“I want my daughter’s body,” he said. “I want harsher punishment for the factory owner. He is responsible for the killings.” 

Follow Pallavi Pundir and Muktadir Rashid on Twitter.

Tagged:

Bangladesh, south asia, child labour, worldnews

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