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article imageOp-Ed: How to stop buildings in Bangladesh collapsing

By Alexander Baron     Apr 25, 2013 in Environment
Dhaka - Earlier this week an eight storey building collapsed in Bangladesh with enormous loss of life. How can something like that happen, and how can we stop it happening again?
Just as there is no mystery about the collapse 12 years ago of either the Twin Towers or Building Seven, so there is no mystery about the recent collapse of an eight storey building in Bangladesh. There is though a massive scandal. How can an eight storey building simply fall down unless it has been hit an earthquake or some such?
This sort of problem is sadly not new; in Bangladesh, a fire claimed a hundred lives last November, and in April 2005 another factory simply collapsed, again with massive loss of life. Safety issues of this nature in public or large private buildings use to be an issue in the West once, but they aren't anymore. Every heard the expression "No one has the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre?"
At one time, fires in public buildings were commonplace, this is why they have such things as fire doors, sprinkler systems, smoke alarms...These are not optional extras, but legal requirements.
There are still accidental fires in public buildings in the UK for example to this day, but heavy loss of life is rare. In 1981, a fire in a private dwelling at New Cross, South London, led to 14 deaths. If this had been a public building, there would almost certainly have been no loss of life. Yet in India, over 80 people were killed in a hospital fire in December 2011. What do public buildings in the UK have that those in India and Bangladesh do not?
Clearly, this is a legal rather than an engineering problem. Back in the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution led to an exodus of farm workers and peasants from rural areas to our great cities. Two centuries on, we are benefiting from this, but the working people of the day often paid a terrible price. The 1844 Factory Act limited the hours worked by children to six and a half, with three hours’ schooling, and set a maximum 12 hour day for women and for young people between 13 and 18. If you think that is some sort of joke, take a look at previous acts.
We in the West and especially the UK often complain about red tape, but when it comes to planning and building regulations, the added inconvenience is usually worth it. You are not likely to buy a new house that is built on top of a disused coal mine; no one is likely to build a glue factory in a residential area; and your local cinema won't collapse around your ears.
Speaking on the BBC yesterday, Sabir Mustafa of its Bengali Service, said there were regulations in Bangladesh, but they are not applied.
The most shocking thing about this latest collapse though is that it needn't have cost one life, because industrial police visited the building, saw the tell tale cracks in the wall, advised it be closed, and...and nothing.
Accidents of this nature don't happen in Britain anymore for the same reason workers don't lose fingers or worse when using potentially dangerous equipment. These latter are fitted with safety guards, and the reason is not simply legislation but strict liability.
Unlike other crimes, strict liability offences do not require mens rea, so for factory owners there can be no cop out blaming someone lower down the food chain. If your building collapses, you are guilty. There is an argument that says strict liability is unfair, and it is for most offences, but for something of this nature and in view of the terrible track record of Bangladesh, which has seen many such incidents over the years, there is no better alternative.
What is needed is rapid legislation and the enforcement of strict liability, with not simply fines but heavy prison sentences for transgressors. If domestic politicians are either unable or unwilling to bring this about, then a combination of labour unions and foreign pressure - from both governments and companies (like Primark) - can surely do so. The phrase "Ethical Trading" is displayed prominently on the official Primark website, but for any company to trade ethically requires the propaganda of the deed, which may mean not only boycotting certain Bangladeshi companies but the entire country until it puts its house in order.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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