Report Will Say Thai Government Culpable In Fatal Factory Fire

Bangkok promises to take stronger action on worker safety and enforcement of labor laws

A SPECIAL commission report on May's tragic doll factory fire will criticize both the owners and government ministries, say sources familiar with a draft of the report.

The report is expected to condemn safety conditions at the plant, as well as the Thai government's failure to follow up on early warnings of safety hazards.

On May 10 a fire destroyed the Kader Industrial (Thailand) Company doll factory on the outskirts of Bangkok in one of the worst industrial blazes in history. So far investigations show 188 workers dead, 13 missing, and about 400 injured. Most of the surviving 3,000 workers remain unemployed.

On Tuesday at least 10 teenage girls locked in a garment sweatshop in central Bangkok also were killed when the building went up in flames, police say.

After the Kader fire, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai appointed a special fact-finding commission made up of industry, labor, and academic representatives. The commission will likely present its preliminary report to Mr. Chuan early this month, says Nikom Chandravithun, chairman of the commission.

While the draft of the report is still being finalized, Lae Dilokvidhyarat, an economics professor with ties to commission members, and other sources say it will contain some sharp criticisms:

* Kader operated a plant with only one narrow fire exit. The plant locked passageways to adjoining buildings to prevent theft. So when the fire broke out, hundreds of workers were trapped. Many jumped from upper-story windows. Despite two previous fires at the plant and warnings from government inspectors, the company failed to improve safety conditions.

* Government ministries reportedly approved faulty construction and failed to follow up on the safety violations inspectors discovered prior to the fire.

* Poor construction, including steel beams that collapsed quickly in the fire, contributed to the many deaths. Safety "warnings were ignored and tragedy resulted," Professor Lae says. "The inspectors did not seriously enforce the law."

Kader management in Thailand has declined to comment on the case pending the resolution of legal issues.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, a government spokesman, concedes that the government needs to take stronger action on worker safety. The government must stop inspectors from accepting bribes from company officials. "Clearly bribery is part of this problem," he says.

Mr. Abhisit promises more vigorous enforcement of labor laws in the future. Ministry of Interior officials are mediating talks between workers and management in an effort to win additional compensation for survivors and victims' families. The company is offering each injured worker $200, and families $4,000.

Critics say the government is making little effort to enforce safety, minimum wage, and anti-pollution laws. "Other companies are just as dangerous [as Kader]," says Somsak Kosaisook, president of the railway workers' association. "They just haven't had accidents yet."

Mr. Somsak says the military regime, which seized power in 1991, passed many anti-union laws, and the current elected government has not changed them. Unions remain weak, giving companies a free hand to ignore the law, he says.

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