* Fire at Bangladesh packaging plant killed at least 39
* Government investigates safety lapses
* Factory's operating licence twice renewed without
* Industrial accidents, Islamist militants dent country's
* Foreign firms who use the plant say made regular checks
By Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul
DHAKA, Oct 13 Bangladesh's safety inspectors
twice extended an operating licence at a food and cigarette
packaging plant in the capital Dhaka without making physical
That breach of rules is now being investigated by the
government after a fire at the Tampaco Foils factory killed at
least 39 people last month.
The cause of the Sept. 10 blaze, the country's worst
industrial accident since the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in which
more than 1,100 mostly garment workers died, is unknown. The
plant's owner, a former member of parliament, has gone missing.
Flammable materials stored on the factory floor, a gas leak,
excessive use of gas and poorly positioned boilers are all being
looked at as possible reasons.
Syed Ahmed, head of the department charged with inspecting
factories and commercial buildings, said his inspectors should
have visited Tampaco before renewing its licence, but did not,
partly because of a shortage of staff.
"If we could have inspected the factory, then we may have
noticed and could have taken action on those shortcomings, and
this could have averted disaster," Ahmed told Reuters.
He said the department had launched an internal review to
identify who was responsible for signing the documents.
Interviews with Ahmed and more than 20 regulators,
investigators, technicians and witnesses involved in the fire at
the factory reveal a lack of oversight that the government is
scrambling to fix.
While inspections of plants making clothes for global brands
have increased significantly since Rana Plaza - many carried out
by or on behalf of Western companies - other sectors that also
supply international firms have had less attention.
"This disaster has opened our eyes to the fact that we must
also focus on other factories," Ahmed said.
Mikail Shipar, secretary of the Labour and Employment
Ministry, said the government was investigating why Tampaco's
licence was renewed without a visit. The operating licence is
one of several required, but among the most important.
"There will be a committee from this ministry and action
will be taken if anyone is found guilty for this lack of
oversight," he told Reuters.
Plans to expand Ahmed's department of about 250 inspectors
by nearly tenfold have picked up pace since the fire, Shipar
The lack of resources is undermining safety for millions of
Bangladeshi workers, as well as damaging the south Asian
nation's image among investors.
The $28 billion garment industry is key, accounting for
around 15 percent of the economy. More than four fifths of
Bangladesh's exports are to the clothing industry, making it the
world's second largest garment supplier after China.
WESTERN COMPANY CHECKS
According to a senior inspection official, the licence at
Tampaco, which supplies packaging to local firms and
multinationals including British American Tobacco and
Nestle, was extended through 2015 and then again until
the middle of 2017, both times with no visit.
When asked about the extension of the plant's operating
licence without inspections taking place, a British American
Tobacco Bangladesh spokeswoman said the cigarette maker
understood them to have been made by independent inspectors as
stipulated by the government.
"We understood, as part of our own review process, that all
the necessary checks had been made," she said in an emailed
statement, adding that the company had reviewed Tampaco in 2012,
2014 and 2015, and had provided environment and health and
safety training, including fire safety, in January, 2016.
"At the time of the last review in October, 2015, British
American Tobacco Bangladesh checked all required licences and
they were found to be valid."
BAT Bangladesh also said it was bringing forward on-site
reviews of all "priority suppliers" in Bangladesh.
A Nestle spokeswoman said: "When more is known about the
cause of this tragedy, we will work with the authorities and
other stakeholders to determine how to avoid any such incidents
in the future."
The company said the Tampaco plant had passed a fire safety
and prevention audit by independent inspection company SGS in
2012, and Nestle, which conducts audits around every three
years, was in the process of organizing the next one.
BANGLADESH'S IMAGE PROBLEM
There are thousands of big factories and warehouses in
Bangladesh, many of them making goods cheaply for multinational
companies, with only a few hundred inspectors to check them.
Improving safety is crucial to restoring the country's image
as a place to work and invest.
Beyond industrial safety, Islamist militants have increased
attacks. In the worst incident, gunmen killed 22 people in a
Dhaka cafe in July, most of them from abroad.
"One of the risks for Bangladesh right now is that between
the July terror attack, the legacy of Rana Plaza and now this
(Tampaco fire), it begins to look like a non-desirable place to
do business," said Sarah Labowitz, co-head of NYU Stern's Center
for Business and Human Rights.
"The government and industry really need to step up and
Shipar said the government was preparing to beef up
inspections in the non-garment sector.
They would be concentrated in four industrial districts,
three of them in or around Dhaka and one in the southeastern
port city of Chittagong.
"It is our estimate that roughly 4,000 factories will come
under this project," he said. "We cannot inspect all factories,
and so we have to give priority to those factories that are
prone to fires or explosions."
The problem is not only lack of staff.
Coordination between inspection teams is problematic, and
the labyrinthine licencing system can cause headaches for
"When we ask (for) documents or to implement recommendations
... the management says they struggle with so many licences
and do not understand which one should have priority," said
Abdus Sattar, who works in the factory inspection department.
OWNER GOES MISSING
The Tampaco factory is owned by Syed Mokbul Hussain, a
He told Reuters on the day of the blaze that Tampaco was
"fully compliant", but has not been contactable since to answer
questions about the licencing process or other safety issues.
Police said Hussain and nine top managers had gone into
hiding since the fire.
Habibur Rahman, a production officer of Tampaco, defended
the company's safety record.
"Why would the owner ignore compliance issues after
investing billions of taka?" he said.
Factories are usually notified about inspections first,
raising questions about their efficacy.
One government inspector, who asked not to be named, told
Reuters during a recent visit to a Dhaka plant that, if he
arrived unannounced, more often than not he would be turned
Promised reforms will come too late for the 39 people
confirmed killed at Tampaco. Several people are missing and
dozens more were injured.
Abdul Momin, who survived the explosion and fire early that
Saturday morning, was one of several witnesses who said they
heard the hiss of gas before the blast rocked the building.
"All of a sudden, I heard a blast," said Mohammad Manowar
Hossain, a long-time Tampaco worker, speaking from hospital
recently where he was being treated for two broken legs.
"I lost my senses. After I got my senses back, there were
many injured workers lying beside me crying for help."
Ahmed, head of the inspection team, said Tampaco had been
warned in 2014 about raw material storage and that it must
ensure the safety of its gas riser - a piping component.
It is not clear whether the recommendations were followed.
($1 = 78.40 Taka)
(Additional reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and
Martinne Geller in London; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by