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Another Apparel Factory Fire in Bangladesh Calls Local Inspection Groups’ Takeover Readiness Into Question

A garment-factory fire that injured eight people just outside of Dhaka in Bangladesh this week has cast doubt over the readiness of national inspection bodies to take over the responsibilities of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, labor-rights activists claim.

Anzir Apparels, where the fire broke out on March 4, was struck off the Alliance’s factory list in 2014 for making insufficient remediation progress after inspections exposed glaring safety problems, including absent or inadequate fire alarm, firefighting equipment and safe emergency exits, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) noted Wednesday. Yet neither the Bangladesh Department of Inspection for Factories (DIFE) and Establishments nor its recently formed Remediation and Coordination Cell (RCC) took follow-up action as the facility cycled through multiple closings and reopenings, allegedly without addressing its underlying hazards.

“In light of the national inspection bodies’ lack of capacity once more demonstrated by this fire, and further exacerbated by the fact that they also carry the responsibility for all other industrial buildings in the country, at this time any handover of Accord-covered factories to these bodies would be extremely irresponsible,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international director of the CCC, said in a statement. “There can be no further transfer of responsibilities until both the government and the Accord have fully remediated all factories under their purview.”

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Forged in the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 1,137 garment workers and injured thousands more, the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were always meant to have five-year expiration dates. But the transition process has been fraught, with battles fought on and off the courthouse floor.

The Alliance, as established by 17 North American apparel retailers, including Gap and Walmart, ceded its jurisdiction to the Bangladesh government at the end of last year, but the European-led Accord signed a new agreement to extend the initiative to 2021, citing a less-than-complete remediation rate of 85 percent and concerns that the progress of the past few years could be rolled back in haste. Bangladeshi officials and factory owners have been less than welcoming of the idea of a protracted Accord presence, however, and have reportedly been resistant to negotiation with the Accord steering committee.

“The government of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association have taken the position that the Accord Bangladesh office operation must end based on timelines which disregard the preparedness (the lack thereof) of the RCC-DIFE,” Joris Oldenziel, deputy director for implementation at the Accord, wrote in a press release last month. “It is widely recognized by those following the readymade-garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh…that the RCC-DIFE remains at its earliest stages of development and is not yet prepared to adequately regulate building and occupational safety and health at its current base of RMG factories.”

Ecotextile News reported Wednesday that an incoming initiative, called Nirapon, which translates to “safe place” in Bengali, will fill in the space left by the Alliance’s departure, albeit with a “light touch” approach. Indeed, a number of the Alliance’s previous members, including Abercrombie & Fitch, VF Corp., J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Target are said to have signed on. There are a few hold-outs, however, among them Fruit of the Loom, Kate Spade, L.L. Bean and Sears.