At a press conference on 16 August, the Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee welcomed the findings of the report of investigation committee formed by the Narayanganj district commissioner office into the fire tragedy at Hashem Foods factory. The investigation report confirmed what the Justice Committee has found in its own investigation. Workers were killed due to the systematic violations of laws and regulations and the criminal negligence of the company. This included the violation of laws concerning the exploitation of child labour, precarious employment, and unsafe working conditions.
The Justice Committee said it is now clear what happened at Sajeeb Group’s factory on 8 July, 2021. Now we need to know;
- why child labour was employed in the factory;
- why there were abusive precarious employment practices;
- why the responsible Government authorities failed to ensure a safe working environment and decent work at the Hashem Foods factory;
- why management could violate the rules and regulations of various government agencies with impunity;
- why management could simply ignore the fire safety plan of the Fire Service and Civil Defense Department (given to the company in October 2020).
The Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee said these questions must be answered since the Government already committed to implementing the ILO Road Map adopted on 10 June 2021, at the International Labour Conference. They also urged Government to form a tripartite monitoring committee to implement the ILO Road Map. The Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee is comprised of eight unions of food and agricultural workers and workers and family members of the victims of the Hashem Foods fire tragedy.
Translation of the Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee Press Release [16 August 2021]
Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee asks Govt. to continue investigation regarding workers’ rights violation and hazardous working situation at Sajeeb Group’s factories including implementation of ILO road map.
At a press conference organized by Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee at the National Press Club, Dhaka on Monday, August 16, 2021, it was demanded to implement ILO roadmap including further investigation into the violation of workers’ rights and distinguish hazardous working condition at Sajeeb Group’s factory in Narayanganj. Member Secretary of Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee Golam Sorowor read out a written statement at the press conference chaired by Abdul Mazid, Convenor of Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee.
The Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee welcomed the findings of the report of investigation committee formed by the Narayanganj district commissioner office into the fire tragedy at Hashem Foods factory. The investigation report has confirmed what the Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee found in its own investigation. The workers were killed due to the systematic violations of laws and regulations and the criminal negligence of the company. This included violation of laws concerning the exploitation of child labour, precarious employment, and unsafe working conditions.
The Justice Committee said it is now clear what happened at Sajeeb Group’s factory on 8 July, 2021. Now we need to know why child labour was employed in the factory, why there was abusive precarious employment, why the responsible Government authorities failed to ensure a safe working environment and decent work at the Hashem Foods factory, why the management could violate the rules and regulations of various government agencies with impunity, and why the management could simply ignore the fire safety plan of the Fire Service and Civil Defense Department given in October 2020.
The Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee said these issues are vital and need to be addressed to ensure workers’ rights and safety at work. These questions must be answered since the Government already committed to implementing the ILO Road Map adopted on 10 June 2021, at the International Labour Conference. They also urged Government to form a tripartite monitoring committee to implement the ILO Road Map.
The Justice Committee also called for further investigation into the missing workers still unaccounted for.
Regarding compensation, the Justice Committee demands to provide compensation to the deceased and injured workers and their families in accordance with ILO Convention No.121 and in addition to provide fair compensation to the victims, all of the workers working at Hashem Foods should be given their wage arrears, unpaid overtime and lost wages. (Note: Unpaid overtime and wage arrears were the reason for a mass protest action one week before the tragedy.)
The Justice Committee supports the recommendation of inquiry committee to provide a job to an eligible member of each deceased family in another factory of Sajeeb Group another factory. However, they repeated their call that before the employment of the family member of the dead workers in other factories under Sajeeb Group, the government must immediately conduct an investigation into the hazardous working conditions, workers occupational health and safety measure in all the factories of Sajeeb Group. They said first it needs to ensure safety and workers’ right and no workers should be employed in another unsafe factory.
Among others, the members of Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee representing eight unions of food and agricultural workers and workers and family members of the victims of the Hashem Foods fire tragedy were present at the press conference.
The IUF-affiliated Sindh Nari Porhyat Council [SNPC], a union of women agricultural workers, made tremendous progress last year in promoting COVID-19 awareness and safety protocols. The distribution of masks and posters in Sindhi on the proper use of masks helped to improve occupational health and safety on farms and public health in rural communities.
This year SNPC continued its COVID-19 awareness campaign by focusing on vaccine awareness. Through education sessions in fields and communities SNPC leaders tackled misinformation, mistrust and unequal access. SNPC has been successful in mobilizing women farm workers in July 2021 to assert their right to be vaccinated.
“Vaccination is necessary to protect our families and community. It is our right. We have been campaigning for health rights including the right to safe drinking water for so long. This is just part of the same struggle,” said Abida Khaskheli, a member of the SNPC Youth Committee from Sultanabad.
Along with Idilia Foods’ Nocilla chocolate hazelnut spread and Shezan International’s Shezan juices, the Kolson pasta products of Lotte Kolson were manufactured at the Hashem Foods factory where a tragic fire killed dozens of workers on 8 July and dozens more suffered serious injuries.
Despite the systematic exploitation of child labour at Hashem Foods factory for a number of years and multiple violations of labour laws and fire safety regulations, Lotte Kolson failed to conduct any form of auditing or due diligence that would reveal these abuses. In fact both Kolson in Pakistan and Lotte in Korea have a history of aggressive trade union rights violations and preventing workers from forming unions. The abusive conditions at Hashem Foods certainly fit their business model.
Lotte Kolson is a Pakistan-based food company wholly owned by Lotte Corporation headquartered in Korea. Lotte acquired Kolson in 2010 and renamed it Lotte Kolson.
From 16 to 18 July 2021, management of Sajeeb Group summoned 24 relatives of workers who died in the fire to give them compensation of BDT 200,000 [EUR 1,962 ; USD 2,317] for each worker who died. This included the under-aged workers, some as young as 11 years old.
The husband and son of Nazma who died in the factory fire on 8 July. Nazmul, 13, also worked in the factory. He had already finished his shift and left the factory when the fire broke out.
To receive a cheque for BDT 200,000 the relatives were instructed to sign a “receipt”. The receipt was in fact a legal disclaimer for any further liability, denying any future compensation claims by the family. The majority of those signing could not read the document and no one was permitted to keep a copy.
A trade union volunteer from the Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee delivers rice to the home of a victim’s family.
By taking advantage of the emotional distress and the extreme economic hardship of the families of the victims, Sajeeb Group forced them to give up the right to any further financial claims or compensation. This is before any official investigation has been concluded, and before any independent public inquiry has been held.
The company now claims that the document signed by desperate family members is legally binding. This is despite the fact that Sajeeb Group is under investigation for several violations of the law under three separate investigations. The owner and senior management face criminal charges including homicide. Yet Sajeeb Group reasserts the “receipt” is a valid legal document and that if the families try to claim any more compensation they will be prosecuted.
The Sajeeb Group Workers’ Justice Committee denounced this action by the company as immoral and illegal. Compensation must be determined as part of a comprehensive investigation into what happened and why. This requires an independent public inquiry. The independent public inquiry will refer to a number of measures, including International Labour Convention No. 121 on Employment Injury Benefits, as a basis for determining compensation. It cannot simply be the decision of Sajeeb Group that the life of a worker is worth USD 2,317.
Workers identified the hazelnut and chocolate spread manufactured under the brand name Nocilla for Spanish company Idilia Foods as one of the main food products made on the third floor of the Hashem Foods factory. Early reports suggest that a pipeline carrying edible oil from one floor to another exploded.
According to a news report on 9 July, fire fighters said that: “Edible oil used as raw material to make a chocolate and hazelnut spread fuelled the fire at Hashem Foods Ltd factory that kept burning for around 24 hours.” The report identified the edible oil as a Nocilla ingredient.
Hashem Foods management ignored warning notices on fire safety and child labour a month before the tragic fire that killed an unknown number of workers, including children as young as 11 years old.
Months before the tragic fire at Hashem Foods factory, management ignored notices issued by the fire services department concerning the lack of fire safety and in particular the lack of fire-fighting equipment. At that time the inspectors saw there was child labour in the factory.
When inspectors from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) visited the factory on June 8, 2021, to inspect health and safety conditions, they also observed child labour blatantly exploited in the factory. DIFE then issued a notice to the factory management regarding the employment of child labour in violation of the law. Hashem Foods management and its parent company Sajeeb Group simply ignored these notices and no action was taken by any of the government authorities.
A week later the fire broke out in the factory fueled by highly flammable chemicals and plastic packaging stored on the second floor, while doors and exits on the third floor were blocked. An unknown number of workers – including children – died or were seriously injured. Three of the children who jumped from the third floor are hospitalized in critical condition.
Although the official death toll is 52, it should be noted that this was announced on the morning of Friday July 9 before the fire was extinguished and a full day before fire fighters could access the fourth and fifth floors.
Just one week before the tragic fire at Hashem Foods factory workers held a protest action over unpaid wages and unpaid overtime. The Daily Inqilab interviewed protesting workers on July 1, 2021, who said, “the higher authorities of the factory threatened to beat and dismiss the workers if they talked about overtime, arrears of salary and salary increase.”
Companies with business relationships with Hashem Foods, including Shezan International and Kolson Lotte in Pakistan, Idilia Foods from Spain and US-based Mondelez International, clearly failed in their human rights due diligence. Despite requests by IUF-affiliated trade unions to discuss this tragedy and their responsibility, they have refused to respond.