Two Groups Complete Inspections of 1,700 Bangladesh Garment Factories

Workers in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Safety is becoming a priority since a building collapse at Rana Plaza in 2013. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

Two big groups of retailers and apparel brands have completed a major step toward advancing garment-factory safety in Bangladesh: They have finished inspecting nearly 1,700 factories in that country.

A European-dominated group — the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, with 189 corporate members, including H&M and Carrefour — said on Tuesday that it had found more than 80,000 safety problems in the 1,106 factories it inspected.

The other — an American-dominated group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety — completed inspections in July of the 587 factories that its 26 members, including Walmart, Gap and Target, use in that country.

The groups are working with Bangladeshi factory owners to promote safety and finance improvements, like fireproof doors or fire-sprinkler systems, that are required for garment factories 75 feet or taller in Bangladesh.

“We have found safety hazards in all factories, which was to be expected,” said Brad Loewen, the chief safety inspector of the Bangladesh Accord. “The safety findings have ranged from minor to significant.”

Ian Spaulding, a senior adviser to the Alliance, said: “Inspections were the easy part. Now comes the hard part.”

The Alliance estimated that it would cost $250,000 on average for safety improvements at each factory. Alan Roberts, the Accord’s executive director for international operations, said the cost for some factories would be $1 million.

All that is needed at some sites is removing machinery and stored fabric from overloaded floors, while others will need sprinkler systems, automated alarm systems and the strengthening of support columns.

Labor unions and consumer groups pushed apparel retailers to form these two efforts after the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Bangladesh in April 2013, killing 1,129 workers.

“The reforms we are working so hard to achieve are long overdue,” said Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman who is chairwoman of the Alliance’s board.

Early on, several Accord officials criticized the Alliance, saying that its inspections would not be as rigorous as the Accord’s. But Alliance officials noted this week that its inspectors asked a Bangladesh review committee to temporarily shut 17 of its 587 factories because of urgent safety problems — a higher percentage than for the Accord, which asked that 24 of its 1,106 inspected factories be temporarily shut, with four remaining permanently closed.

The Accord’s members — mainly European, but including some American and Asian companies — use about 1,500 factories in Bangladesh. The group said that in addition to its 1,106 inspections, it would use 300 inspection reports the Alliance did for factories that produced for companies from both groups. In addition, the Accord said it had not yet inspected 100 factories that its company members listed toward the end of the initial inspection program.

The International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, will make low-interest loans available to Bangladeshi factory owners for safety improvements, so long as overseas customers of those factories guarantee the loans.

“The bottom line is the vast majority of factory owners have been absolutely cooperative throughout,” said Mr. Roberts of the Accord. “They see this as a benefit to their industry, as opposed to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which thought the industry would be decimated by this.”

The Bangladeshi government has a separate National Action Plan to inspect an additional 1,500 often smaller factories not used directly by Accord or Alliance members, but thus far only 400 of them have been inspected. Engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology have inspected them, but with that effort going more slowly than planned, Bangladesh plans to ask companies to help complete those inspections.

Source: New York Times