NEW DELHI - International inspections of Bangladesh's garment factories have identified safety gaps that have led to the closure of two factories. The inspections, sponsored by Western retailers, aim at improving safety standards in the world’s primary clothing supplier, where last year’s deadly building collapse highlighted dismal working conditions.
The preliminary rounds of rigorous structural, fire and electrical inspections by engineering teams have focused on the most vulnerable buildings housing garment factories in and around Dhaka.
Buildings, range of problems
The inspectors found a range of problems. Among them: overloaded ceilings, unauthorized floors, not enough fire alarms, and electrical wiring that could be a hazard. Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector of the Bangladesh Accord Foundation says fire exits at many establishments failed to meet safety standards.
“Lockable gates across exits are not allowed, they have to be removed, that was often found. The exits there need to be separated from the rest of the building so that they are safe in case of a fire,” Loewen said.
The Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety has been sponsored by over 150 clothing brands from about 20 countries. It was signed in the wake of two disasters that led many to question whether some of the factories that churn out clothes for Western customers are death traps.
Last April, Rana Plaza, an eight story building housing garment factories collapsed, killing over 1100 people. It was the world’s deadliest garment factory accident and came five months after a blaze swept through another garment factory killing 112 workers.
The inspectors face a daunting task. Bangladesh has more than 5000 factories, many housed in old buildings. Some 38 teams of international engineers will inspect 1500 factories by September.
So far the focus has been identifying necessary repairs and renovations in problem factories. But at least two factories housed in adjoining buildings were considered too unsafe for workers and were temporarily shut down last week, causing more than 3000 workers to be laid off.
One reopened after two days, the other remains shut. The inspectors identified structural problems in one of the buildings.
Keeping doors shut
The closures raised concerns in the garment industry. Rubana Huq is managing director of the Mohammadi Group, one of Bangladesh’s large garment exporters. She said there are no quick fixes to the problems and the issues involved have to be dealt with patiently.
“Whether an immediate evacuation was necessary is the question. Overnight closures are absolutely not desirable, it is not a great thing to be happening to the industry or the vendors. It gives out very mixed signals to the world, as it is we are suffering from an image deficit here,” she stated.
Rapid growth in Bangladesh’s $22 billion garment industry led factories in Dhaka and its suburbs to expand at a frenzied pace. While some of the bigger factories are modern, many makeshift factories have expanded in old buildings or residential premises. In a megacity where land costs have been on the rise, some factories have added additional floors, at times illegally.
Huq said that while fire safety is a critical concern that needs to be addressed, factory owners need to be given time to address other issues.
“We are not going to overnight grow buildings out of nothing with fully automated hydrant systems and sprinklers and everything. Many of the buildings are old, so we need to be careful about structural integrity," Huq noted. "Fire is going to be the issue and not the structural integrity. Buildings don’t just collapse.”
Raising standards, cost
There are also concerns that the expense of renovation will add to the cost of doing business in an industry with thin profit margins. The industry has also recently implemented a higher wage for garment workers, whose salaries are among the lowest in the world.
Mustafizur Rahman is executive director at Dhaka’s Center for Policy Dialogue, which has conducted studies of the garment industry. He said a revamp of the sector is necessary. “Relocation, renovation, substantive reconstruction, all this require substantive investment. So those factories which will undertake this will be adversely affected," he said. "But overall there is an appreciation that Bangladesh factories will have to have a zero tolerance in this regard, otherwise buyers will move away gradually.”
Brad Loewen and other members of the Bangladesh Accord will spend five years in Bangladesh conducting the inspections and also focusing on improving other working conditions for garment workers.
Loewen said he is optimistic that positive changes can be brought about without hurting a critical industry for Bangladesh’s economy.