A survey launched in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster has revealed that three-fifths of garment factories in the country are vulnerable to collapse.
On April 24, cracks in the walls and pillars of the Rana Plaza building caused its collapse, destroying five garment factories and a shopping center that were housed in the illegally constructed eight story building. 1,127 were killed and around 2,500 were injured, many of whom were female garment workers making goods for international buyers such as Benetton, Bonmarche, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.
This news means that the lives of millions of workers are at risk, which may send shockwaves through western buyers. Many have chosen to believe that the problems in Bangladeshi factories are isolated incidents – this survey clearly shows that the problem is systemic. Many western buyers are already moving to improve conditions in their factories.
The garment industry is a vital sector for Bangladesh, supplying the majority of its foreign currency and employing about 3.5 million people. Improving safety has become a top priority for the Bangladeshi government, since the collapse.
A team of engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology conducted the survey. So far, they have surveyed roughly one hundred of an estimated 600 buildings, housing more than 3,000 garment and apparel factories.
“Around 60% of the buildings are vulnerable,” according to Professor Mehedi Ansary, the leader of the team. “This doesn’t meant they will collapse in the next week or month, but it does mean that to leave them unchanged would be irresponsible.”
Before the April 24th Rana Plaza collapse, managers ignored cracks and other warning signs. More dramatically, workers were ordered to get back to work in the building, and at least one report indicates that they may have been beaten or verbally abused.
The team of engineers is performing a visual survey of existing buildings, as well as reviewing initial soil tests and original plans. Permits have been given for more than 5,000 factories, and many of them are in buildings that were not originally intended to be used as workshops.
In the case of Rana Plaza, permission was given for a five-story building in 2006. That initial building was correctly designed and constructed, says Ansary, but three more floors were added, with false documentation used to obtain permits from local authorities. The additional weight is what caused the building to collapse.
Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, has been arrested, and investigations have indicated that his prominent role as a politician in the Awami League party is likely what allowed him to circumvent the building codes.
In a fatal compounding of Bangladesh’s many problems, the collapse appears to have been directly caused by vibration from electric generators, which were installed in the building to compensate for frequent power cuts.
Factories in downtown Dhaka and in Chittagong are of particular concern, because many of them were set up without any oversight in the early years of the garment boom. Ansary said, “There many be lots of very vulnerable [factories] we don’t know about,” but also said that the team did not want to create panic, and is saying that they are probably safe to run for the moment.
The news is likely to impact negotiations over two new safety agreements being crafted among international retailers. One, which has primarily been agreed to by European retailers, would require signatories to pay for building safety improvements and take other measures to prevent another disaster.
The Bangladesh Garment Makers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) responded to the Rana Plaza collapse in part by requiring members to submit the blueprints for their factory buildings. Atiqul Islam, president of the BGMEA, said that 75% of members have submitted their blueprints, but surveying them and making the workplaces safe was a “massive job.”
Collapse aside, Bangladesh also has a serious problem with fire safety, and has seen multiple fire related disasters in recent years. Last weekend, British newspaper the Guardian visited a five-story factory with more than 400 workers stitching and packing fleece winter jackets for sale in the EU. According to the Guardian report, a narrow stairwell was obstructed with cardboard boxes, windows were barred, and a preexisting fire exit had been removed. On the ground floor, an industrial boiler was separated from piles of flammable material by a non-fireproof partition wall. This corresponds with a report from CBS, showing a serious shortage of working fire extinguishers, boxes piled in front of emergency exits, and other safety concerns at a factory they visited.
When confronted with this evidence, manufacturers blame “massive pressure” from buyers to keep prices low.
“Every year our cost of production is rising. Land, utilities, salaries, everything is going up. But the price of apparel is going down. It’s a sick industry now,” said Islam. This bears out a recent report from a British organization showing that apparel prices were down 5.7% in Britain in May alone.
Bangladeshi workers typically earn $50 to $70 a month, but wages are due to increase along with conditions.