By Nandita Bose
DHAKA, July 29 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 $20 billion
But there's little coordination 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 U.S. and European retailers which buy the bulk of
Bangladesh-made clothing had hoped to complete factory
inspections within 9-12 months, inspectors and government
officials say this will take at least 5 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 Inc, Tesco Plc and Hennes & Mauritz AB's
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 safety inspections this year. Islam
showed Reuters certificates from Bureau Veritas, the firm
Wal-Mart has hired to inspect suppliers, and Sedex Members
Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA), which inspects Tesco factories.
Others to have carried out checks include the Bangladesh
textiles ministry and the national garment association, whose
4-person inspection crew spent 3 hours hunting for cracks that
could indicate structural flaws like those at Rana Plaza - an
illegally built tower where safety warnings were ignored.
A Reuters reporter followed teams of local inspectors
touring more than half a dozen factories in and around the
capital Dhaka this month, and spoke to factory owners,
government officials and engineers to gauge progress in attempts
to assure the safety of the garment industry's buildings.
During a surprise safety check at Miami Garments, a worker
unearthed a fire extinguisher from beneath a pile of shirts to
show a government inspector. It was the only one in the 15,000
square foot, 4-storey factory. The building code requires one
extinguisher per 550 square feet.
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, the inspectors found.
"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 1-2 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 European Union, which gives
preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, threatened punitive
measures. Last month, U.S. 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 percent in June,
showing that retailers have not turned away since the Rana Plaza
A group of 80 mostly European retailers who signed an accord
to carry out coordinated 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 9 months, and will
take around 5 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.
WORKING IN ISOLATION
At a building safety conference in Dhaka earlier this month,
government agencies, the powerful Bangladesh Garment
Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the
Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET),
reached no agreement on how to coordinate safety checks.
Reuters spoke to five officials who attended the meeting and
found they had overlapped inspecting some factories and 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 BGMEA's additional secretary.
The BGMEA, 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 3-4
inspectors taking at least 3 hours to finish each check.
Results of initial visual inspections that raise a red flag
are passed on to BUET, the country's premier engineering
university, for closer scrutiny.
PAINTING OVER THE CRACKS
While BUET 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 - which is in talks with the government
for permission to hire more people.
On a recent tour of the Bengal Indigo factory, cracks on the
walls had been covered with fresh paint and plaster before BUET
Professors Mehedi Ahmed Ansary and Raquib Ahsan arrived. "It
looks like the owners have tried to cover the cracks, but it's
still visible," said Ahsan, who like other professors conducts
inspections in addition to his full-time teaching job.
The two professors raised concerns about the weight of
machines and clothing on the top floor, and noted the building
deviated from design blueprints. They asked the company to
submit to a voluntary secondary assessment, which will take more
than two months as engineers check the plant's column strength
and study steel, concrete and cement samples.
Full inspections on all factories will take up to 7 years,
and plans for that are being discussed with the government and
the International Labour Organisation, said BUET's Rahman.
"The post-collapse impetus to inspect factories has slowed
and it's definitely proving to be a challenge to make sure this
whole effort doesn't fizzle out," he said.