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Bangladesh Factories: More Pessimism than Progress

Since the Rana Plaza tragedy, industry players have scrambled to organize alliances and develop sound plans for factory inspections in the wake of increasing safety concerns.

Despite these collaborations and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety’s successive  announcements of the coalition’s milestones since its July inception, factory owners have little faith in the successful implementation of these proposed security measures.

Unnamed garment makers told TIME that because of limited resources, inspections have been superficial or even corrupted by bribery. “[The inspections] are nothing to us–the teams come for an hour, they take some free shirts, and then they go away,” a factory manager who wished to remain anonymous, said.

According to the same story, inspectors have no actual enforcement authority; they only make recommendations, widely considered toothless.

A lack of manpower is also a major problem. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the trade body that represents apparel exporters, has only ten inspectors to offer and even with the other agencies contributing inspectors to the cause, teams are only able to survey a few factories–out of the more than 5,000–each day.

Bangladesh risks losing billions in business should another major factory accident occur and the country can’t afford to lose its standing as the world’s second largest garment exporter.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety announced that human rights expert and attorney Jeffrey Krilla will be the coalition’s new president. Ellen O’Kane Tauscher, the alliance chair, said Krilla’s foreign policy experience and understanding of the factory safety issues will guide the organization toward its goal of inspecting all Alliance factories by next summer.

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“I’m excited to join an organization that is already making real progress in improving the lives of Bangladesh garment workers,” Krilla said in a statement. “Just nine weeks after being formed, the Alliance has already achieved some significant milestones and has been a part of fruitful discussions with key stakeholders, including the ILO and the Accord, on developing common safety standards that will transform conditions of our workers.”

The Alliance reported that they have reached several milestones including:


  • Developing a draft of common fire and building safety standards which were discussed at the ILO-convened meeting in Dhaka Sept. 7
  • Creating a new fire and safety training curriculum
  • Beginning work on training program for workers and a means for reporting workplace concerns

However, this self-celebrating laundry list of accomplishments rings hollow in light of reports of systemic corruption, especially after news that another factory in Bangladesh was consumed by a deadly fire which killed seven and injured dozens more.

According to police reports, the fire erupted in a two-story building that is part of the Aswad Composite Mills Ltd. factory in the Gazipur industrial district, approximately thirty-five miles north of Dhaka. As of this morning, the fire still blazed on, frustrating firefighters attempts to extinguish it completely.

Wal-Mart, Hudson Bay Co. and Joe Fresh all contract with Aswad Composite Mills for the production of their apparel. A Wal-Mart spokesman issued a statement saying it is “working to understand the facts and will take appropriate action based on our findings.” Hudson Bay claims that it hasn’t worked with the factory since last April, and has terminated its contracts with them. However, the clothing maker declined to specify what inspired the termination.

Aswad Composite Mills is one of the 1,500 factories covered by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a consortia of more than ninety retailers assembled to supervise and finance the improvement of factory safety in Bangladesh. Scott Nova, director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, said, “The safety accord in it of itself doesn’t change anything, which is why this fire underscores the urgency of getting factory inspections and renovations under way.”

And Bangladesh suffers from problems simply unaddressed by either of the two international humanitarian groups. According to the Global Competitiveness Report (GCR), a study completed by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh suffers from increased governmental instability, inefficient governmental bureaucracy and a general lack of access for business to financing.

The most troubling discovery, though, was that Bangladesh is still addled with rampant corruption. A survey of seventy-one companies unearthed complaints of bribery, tax evasion related to import and export business and the illegal awarding of contracts and licenses as a result of bribery and fraud.

Meanwhile, business in Bangladesh is brisk, marching on undaunted by international scrutiny and criticism. Bangladesh’s exports of ready-made garments for the first quarter of the current fiscal year increased robustly by 24 percent, according to data released by the Export Promotion Bureau. Also, knitwear exports from July to September hit a staggering #3.16 billion for the first quarter alone, nearly a 24 percent increase from this time last year.