A team of top engineers from a prestigious Bangladeshi university issued the first report card on the country’s ailing garment factories. The preliminary results are unpromising. According to the findings, nearly 90 percent of all the buildings examined are structurally unsound.
The Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) assessed seventy factories and determined that only six were up to code. Of the remaining sixty-four factories, every single one was marred by minor deviations or faults.” Mohammed Rahman, the head the of the panel of academic engineers, tried to soften the blow of the report: “Fault does not mean unsafe.”
At least two of the factories inspected–one in Dhaka and another in Manikganj–were found so riddled with safety violations they have already been earmarked for immediate shutdown. Four more buildings were identified as in “critical condition” and will be subject to rolling inspections over the next three to six months. “We’ve advised the owners of four buildings to conduct detailed structural analysis immediately to avoid any disaster,” said Professor Rahman.
The report is a sobering indication of just how difficult it will be to improve Bangladesh’s appalling factory safety conditions. The EU led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh has plans to inspect the approximately 1,000 factories that directly supply them with garments while the US brokered Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety intends to cover another 500. Problematically, the totality of Bangladesh’s garment factories exceeds 5,000 in number.
Overall, the combined efforts of the two parallel alliances will cover about 25 percent of all of the factories that directly export to the signatory nations. Many of the remaining factories still indirectly subcontract business with both the alliances’ members, particularly the EU led one. Also, the expert panel expressed concern that many of the factory owners most in need of engineering assistance were hesitant to come forward to request it for fear their buildings would be condemned. Thus far, over 300 applications from the owners of various garment factories, hospitals, banks, etc., have been filed.
The problem of building safety, while it has disproportionately impacted Bangladesh’s still thriving garment industry, has implications for other sectors of the economy as well. More than half of its garment factories share building space with other businesses. Even more disconcerting, more than 10 percent of the buildings in question were originally built to house residential units and were subsequently converted into commercial space.