Bangladeshi factory inspections ‘will take years’

Workers sort garments at a factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building. World attention is focused on safety. Picture: Reuters
Workers sort garments at a factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building. World attention is focused on safety. Picture: Reuters
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IN THE weeks since the Rana Plaza collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, at least five different Bangladeshi agencies have sent teams to begin inspecting the estimated 5,600 factories that make up the nation’s £13 billion garment industry.

But there is little co-ordination between them, and senior government officials are unable to say just how many factories have been checked. Estimates vary from just 60 to 340.

While retailers from America and Europe which buy the bulk of Bangladesh-made clothing had hoped to complete their own factory inspections within nine to 12 months, inspectors and government officials say this will take at least five years.

Bangladesh has fewer than 200 qualified inspectors. The disconnect among the various agencies conducting what are often cursory visual assessments – Bangladesh has nowhere near enough technical equipment for sophisticated inspections – means some factories have been visited several times, while others have had no checks at all.

“It’s a big nuisance for us, and while we’re being put through this, nobody’s checking all the other factories in the vicinity that haven’t had a single inspection,” said Emdadul Islam, a director of Babylon Garments, which supplies Wal-Mart, Tesco and H&M stores.

“Our managers are focusing on entertaining inspectors instead of their work because none of these teams are speaking to each other.”

Babylon has passed six safety inspections this year. Mr Islam showed certificates from Bureau Veritas, the firm Wal-Mart has hired to inspect suppliers, and Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit, which inspects Tesco factories.

Others to have carried out checks include the Bangladesh textiles ministry and the national garment association, whose four-person inspection crew spent three hours hunting for cracks that could indicate structural flaws like those at Rana Plaza – an illegally built tower where safety warnings were ignored.

Reporters followed teams of local inspectors touring more than half a dozen factories in and around the capital Dhaka this month, and spoke to factory owners, government officials and engineers to gauge progress in attempts to assure the safety of the garment industry’s buildings.

During a surprise safety check atat one factory, a worker unearthed a fire extinguisher from beneath a pile of shirts to show a government inspector. It was the only one in the 15,000sq ft, four-storey factory. The building code requires one extinguisher per 550sq ft.

Inspector Abdul Latif Helaly and two colleagues from Dhaka’s Capital Development Authority, responsible for urban development, noted it on a list of observations about the factory, which is in a residential building – another building code violation. There was just a single narrow exit staircase, weak floors and structural columns insufficient to support the factory’s load, the inspectors found.

“This is a relatively compliant factory and no action needs to be taken here,” Mr Helaly said after the 30-minute inspection. “We have asked the owners to move their factory to a new building soon and they have agreed to do it in the next one to two years.” After signing the factory’s clean bill of health, the inspectors were each handed two shirts by the owners.

Bangladesh pledged to boost workers’ rights and recruit more safety inspectors after the European Union, which gives preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, threatened punitive measures.

Bangladesh’s garment exports rose 16 per cent in June, showing that retailers have not turned away since the Rana Plaza tragedy in April.

A group of 80 mostly European retailers who signed an accord to carry out coordinated inspections in Bangladesh have started hiring and training inspectors on their own to check the around 1,000 factories that supply their brands.