Safe garment factories still a luxury in Bangladesh
With limited resources, Bangladeshi inspectors are struggling to check on thousands of factories, despite hundreds killed in recent building collapse
In the weeks since the Rana Plaza collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, at least five different Bangladesh agencies have sent teams to begin inspecting the estimated 5,600 factories that make up the nation's US$20 billion garment industry.
But there's little co-ordination between the agencies, and senior government officials are unable to say just how many factories have been checked. Estimates vary from just 60 to 340.
While US and European retailers which buy the bulk of Bangladesh-made clothing had hoped to complete factory inspections within nine to 12 months, inspectors and government officials say this will take at least five years.
Bangladesh has fewer than 200 qualified inspectors.
The disconnect among the various agencies conducting what are often cursory visual assessments - Bangladesh has nowhere near enough technical equipment for sophisticated inspections - means some garment factories have been visited several times, while others have had no checks at all.
"It's a big nuisance for us, and while we're being put through this, nobody's checking all the other factories in the vicinity that haven't had a single inspection," said Emdadul Islam, a director of Babylon Garments, which supplies Wal-Mart Stores, Tesco and H&M stores. "Our managers are focusing on entertaining inspectors instead of their work because none of these teams are speaking to each other."
Babylon has passed six inspections this year. Islam showed certificates from Bureau Veritas, the firm Wal-Mart has hired to inspect suppliers, and Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit, which inspects Tesco factories.
Others to have carried out checks include the Bangladesh textiles ministry and the national garment association, whose four-person inspection crew spent three hours hunting for cracks that could indicate structural flaws like those at Rana Plaza - an illegally built tower where safety warnings were ignored.
During a surprise safety check at Miami Garments, a worker unearthed a fire extinguisher from beneath a pile of shirts to show an inspector. It was the only one in the 15,000 square foot, four-storey factory. The building code requires one extinguisher per 550 sq ft.
Inspector Abdul Latif Helaly and two colleagues from Dhaka's Capital Development Authority, responsible for urban development, noted it on a list of observations about the factory, which is in a residential building - another building code violation. There was just a single narrow exit staircase, weak floors and structural columns insufficient to support the factory's load.
"This is a relatively compliant factory and no action needs to be taken here," Helaly said after the 30-minute visual inspection, made without the use of any tools. "We have asked the owners to move their factory to a new building soon and they have agreed to do it in the next one to two years."
After signing the factory's clean bill of health, the inspectors were each handed two shirts by the owners.
Bangladesh pledged to boost worker rights and recruit more safety inspectors after the EU, which gives preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, threatened punitive measures. Last month, US President Barack Obama cut off trade benefits for Bangladesh in a mostly symbolic response to conditions in the garment industry.
Bangladesh's garment exports rose 16 per cent in June, showing that retailers have not turned away since the Rana Plaza tragedy.
A group of 80 mostly European retailers who signed an accord to carry out co-ordinated inspections in Bangladesh have started hiring and training inspectors on their own to check the around 1,000 factories that supply their brands.
"This whole process is painstakingly slow," said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the Switzerland-based IndustriALL union that is overseeing the plan. He said the group would complete only initial safety checks within nine months, and will take around five years to make repairs, conduct final inspections and declare all factories safe.
North American retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap formed their own alliance and are confident of fully checking the 500 factories that supply their members by July 2014. They are hiring third-party agencies to inspect factories and not re-inspect those that have already been passed fit, said Nate Herman, vice-president for international trade at the American Apparel and Footwear Association, which is part of the alliance. He said the inspections would begin from November.
At a building safety conference in Dhaka earlier this month, government agencies, the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, reached no agreement on how to co-ordinate safety checks.
According to officials who attended the meeting, they had overlapped inspecting some factories and had not shared their findings.
"We have to independently verify the buildings and anyway the association cannot be held responsible for the lack of co-ordination. The government needs to look at it," said Shamsul Haque, the association's additional secretary.
The association, which has 10 inspectors, said it has checked 400 factories and shut 20 of them. The plan is to complete visual inspections of all 2,500 member factories by December - an ambitious average of 12 inspections a day based on teams of three to four inspectors taking at least three hours to finish each check.
Results of initial visual inspections that raise a red flag are passed on to the university, the country's premier engineering university, for closer scrutiny.
While the university has the expertise to carry out structural inspections, it lacks both the manpower and the gear.
"We need more sophisticated equipment and if we double our staff strength from 30 we can aim to finish a thorough preliminary assessment on all factories in 18 months," said Mohammad Mujibur Rahman, head of the university's civil engineering department.