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On a spring morning almost two years ago, the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh. One thousand, one hundred and ten people were killed. It was the deadliest garment factory disaster ever, and it revealed the dire working conditions of people who labor to provide cheap clothing for the rest of the world, including for us. Ever since, Bangladesh’s garment industry has been trying to improve its safety standards. Amy Yee reports from Dhaka.
AMY YEE, BYLINE: Dozens of sewing machines buzz inside a shop floor of this garment factory near Dhaka. A young woman guides blue pajama pants under a whirring needle then carefully checks the length of the drawstring. This is Optimum Fashion Wear, a factory with about 400 workers that makes clothes for companies such as Store Twenty One in the U.K. and VF Corp, owner of brands such as Wrangler and Lee. Mohammed Ridoy, a bright-eyed 22-year-old, has worked here for three years. He is from a village about six hours from Dhaka and is one of the factory’s best workers.
MOHAMMED RIDOY: (Foreign language spoken).
YEE: He says, “After Rana Plaza collapsed,” he felt, “so afraid.”
But now his factory has made many improvements, so he feels safer. Last year Ridoy got special fire safety training and learned to use a fire extinguisher and other equipment. Thousands of factories like Optimum are urgently trying to comply with international standards after the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013. A few months ago inspections finished at more than 1,700 garment factories. They make clothes for about 200 well-known global retailers and brands, such as H&M, Target, Walmart and Macy’s. Inspections were conducted by two new international groups called the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Factories were inspected for electrical, fire and structural safety. More than 30 factories were closed because of imminent risk, but they were a minority.
IAN SPAULDING: For the vast majority of others – and I’d say 98 percent – we didn’t have those eminent risk.
YEE: That’s Ian Spaulding, senior advisor to the alliance, which represents 26 clothing companies.
SPAULDING: But we do have other risks, such as a lack of fire doors, egress routes that were too narrow. We have inadequate water supply for sprinkler systems. We didn’t have sprinklers.
YEE: Now after the inspections, the critical, more difficult work of fixing problems has begun. At Optimum, factory owners have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some improvements are simple, such as keeping aisles between sewing machines clear or moving large stacks of fabric to prevent overloading floors. Other fixes were more complicated. On the factory’s second floor, a young man seals boxes of folded pajamas with packing tape. Here, nine cement pillars were reinforced or replaced. On the ground floor, the factory built a water reservoir for an imported fire hose and pump attached to a shiny red engine. Metal fire doors are completely new to garment factories in Bangladesh. So are sprinklers and comprehensive fire alarm systems. But many of the improvements are relatively simple and can make factories dramatically safer.
Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector for the Accord, says fixing something like electrical wiring has a big impact.
BRAD LOEWEN: Seventy percent of the factory fires originate from electrical causes, and it’s obvious why – because the electrical systems are not well maintained.
YEE: And just cleaning electrical wires of flammable dust and lint can prevent fires from starting in the first place. Factories are also required to remove lockable gates that can trap workers inside during a fire. Some like Optimum are responding quickly. Those that don’t comply are not allowed to source to the Accord and Alliance clothing brands. But there are still about 1,200 factories under a national government-backed plan that must also be inspected. For all of Bangladesh’s garment factories, more hard work still lies ahead.
For NPR News I’m Amy Yee, Dhaka.