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Post Rana Plaza, Bangladesh Workers Still At Risk

The three million Bangladeshis employed in the nation’s $20 billion dollar garment industry remain at risk despite the onslaught of inspections in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse.  More than 1,100 died and more than 2,500 were injured when the building containing a bank, several shops and a number of illegal garment factories collapsed due to the weight and vibration of the factory machinery.

Not atypically for the burgeoning garment industry, the upper floors had been built without a permit, and conversion to factory use was out of compliance with the architect’s designs.  The day before the collapse, cracks had been found in the building walls and an evacuation was ordered.  Managers of the bank and the retail shops complied with the evacuation order.  Factory managers declared the building safe and ordered workers back to the machinery under threat of withholding a month’s pay and termination of their jobs.  The five thousand employees returned to work only to have the building collapse under and onto them during morning rush hour.

In the weeks that followed, teams from at least five Bangladeshi agencies and inspectors from international trade unions, the EU and from North American retailers have descended upon Dhaka and other industrial centers to inspect the more than 5,600 factories comprising Bangladesh’s major growth industry.  The problems are mainly lack of coordination and communication.  The different teams do not communicate with each other nor do they operate under the same protocols and paradigms.

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Bureau Veritas, Walmart’s inspection contractor, may look for fire extinguishers of one type, location and size, while Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) may expect different  parameters.  And each may inspect the same factory supplying material to both Walmart and Tesco (who contracts with SMETA) while ignoring obviously dangerous factories sometimes within the same buildings. Emdadul Islam, a director of Babylon Garments, states that his factory has passed six safety inspections this year, while “other factories in the vicinity haven’t had a single inspection.”

Bangladesh’s cadre of inspectors, fewer than 200 spread across five agencies, often perform only cursory visual inspections without the technology or expertise necessary to assess structural damage like those that caused the Rana collapse. Reuters reports factories passing inspection despite such violations as lack of fire suppression (one fire extinguisher in a 15,000 square foot building when the code calls for one every 500 square feet), an illegally built tower (like the one at Rana), location within a residential building, only one exit staircase, weak floors and weak structural columns not designed or built to sustain factory machinery.  “This is a relatively compliant factory and no action needs to be taken here,” says Abdul Latif Helaly of the Dhaka Capital Development Authority.

Inspection teams from the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) have failed to coordinate safety checks and have reached no agreement on parameters and protocol.  Shamsul Haque, the BGMEA’s additional secretary, claims that “the association cannot be held responsible for the lack of co-ordination. The government needs to look at it.”  The government lacks the manpower, so the BGMEA plans to inspect all 2,500 member factories by December with its ten inspectors.  This would require twelve inspections every day, a tall order for the three to four member teams who have already cut their inspection time to four hours.  Potentially dangerous findings are passed on to professors from BUET to inspect during their time away from their classrooms.  They hope to double their inspection force to thirty in order to complete their inspections in eighteen months.

The BGMEA’s cursory visual inspections, coupled with their shifting responsibility to BUET, have contributed to a loss of credibility in the eyes of the workers they are meant to protect.  A group of activists calling themselves “24 April” have alleged discrepancies in salary disbursement and compensation to those who worked at Rana Plaza.  The BGMEA is accused of protecting the interest of the government and of factory owners at the expense of the workers.

Outside interests have begun exerting influence.  Eighty retailers and brands have signed on to a fire and building safety accord for the Bangladesh garment industry.  Lead by European Union fashion giants C&A and Inditex, and by international union leaders Global Union and IndustriALL, the accord will be presented to government and union officials soon.  The BGMEA and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, together with government officials, are appealing for more say going forward.  They would like coordination of inspection checklists, a balance of power with vendors and a spot on the steering committee.

As major players jockey for positions of power and influence, Bangladesh’s garment workers continue to report for work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.