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Inspecting Bangladesh's factories

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJuly 18, 2014

Bangladesh's Rana Plaza building collapse triggered calls for better conditions in the garment industry. But despite improvements, there is still much to do, Ian Spaulding from the Alliance inspection group tells DW.

A worker works in a factory of Ananta Garments Ltd in Savar June 10, 2014.
Image: Reuters

On April 24, 2013, Bangladesh witnessed of one its worst industrial tragedies in history. Over 1,100 workers died when the eight-storey garment factory building Rana Plaza, located outside the capital Dhaka collapsed. The incident triggered an international outcry and spotlighted the safety shortcomings in the South Asian nation's garment industry, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports.

Western demands for better standards for those who make their clothes led to the creation of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an inspection group led by European retailers, and the North American brands-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety made up of two dozen American and Canadian companies, including Walmart and Gap. Together they are responsible for inspecting around 2,100 factories over a period of five years.

The groups have a mandate to recommend the closure of factories they regard as unsafe and demand repairs. Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the Alliance, told DW that the group has already made progress in inspecting close to 600 factories used by its members, but also pointed out that there is still a general lack of worker safety knowledge in the sector.

DW: What has happened in Bangladesh since April 24, 2013 in terms safety measures in garment factories?

Ian Spaulding: Since our formation in July 2013, our work has focused on ensuring a common, internationally recognized safety standard was used by all stakeholders. Based on this common standard, most of the work in the first year has been spent on carrying out inspections and training workers in every factory in which our member companies do business. So far, 10 factories have been submitted to the Government Established Review Panel and most have been either closed completely or partially following our recommendations to the Review Panel.

Ian Spaulding Senior Advisor, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Spaulding: "There is a general lack of worker and management knowledge about fire safety and evacuation systems in the sector"Image: Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety

I am happy to report that we are very close to meeting our goal of inspecting 100 percent of all Alliance Member factories. Additionally, we have provided safety training to more than 900,000 Bangladeshi workers and will meet our goal of training one million workers in the near future.

Which are the main safety issues in the factories?

While core structural issues are the least common, they often raise the most immediate life safety concerns. Thus, the majority of factories recommended for the Review Panel have had structural issues. Outside of structural concerns, there are common issues across many factories relating to electrical safety, which increases the chance for starting fires.

The common issues related to fire containment are building characteristics such as lack of enclosed stairways, fire rated doors and sprinkler systems. Beyond these physical elements, there is a general lack of worker and management knowledge about fire safety and evacuation systems in the sector. This human element is vital to saving lives when fires break out. The fundamental goal is saving lives.

How do Alliance safety inspectors go about their work?

A team of inspectors - a minimum of three licensed engineers, depending on factory size - visit the factory and use a consistent, comprehensive standard to inspect all aspects of the building's structural, electrical and fire safety. During the inspection, they are accompanied by a team that usually includes a factory manager, production manager, and at least one workers representative. At the conclusion of each inspection, the inspection team delivers a high-level review of the inspection to the factory management and key worker representatives.

How would you describe the level of cooperation with both the factories and the Bangladeshi government?

The Alliance views local partnerships and collaboration as central to long-term success. To this end, the Alliance opened an office in Bangladesh, hired local staff and focused on building partnerships with the Bangladeshi government, local industry associations, worker organizations and technical experts. Representatives from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and BRAC - the largest NGO in the world - sit on our board of directors.

We are also working closely with the Fire Service and Civil Defense Department and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), and serve on the Review Panel for potential shutdown of any garment factory failing inspections conducted by BUET, the Accord and/or the Alliance.

Who makes the decision to shut down a factory?

For the closure of factories that Alliance inspectors deem unsafe, we follow the process established by the National Tri-partite Plan of Action established by the Bangladesh Government, which holds that factories recommended for immediate closure must be reviewed by a Review Panel. The Panel includes seven members from the BGMEA, and representatives from the Alliance, the Accord, the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, local trade unions and the NTC.

The panel convenes for the specific purpose of deliberating on cases of factory closures within 48 hours of receiving any information on the needed repairs. The decision on closure is ultimately determined and enforced by the government of Bangladesh.

According to news reports, the government in Dhaka recently refused to shut down garment factories recently declared unsafe. What is your view on the fact that thousands of people are still working in such factories there despite the risks?

This was a temporary issue that has since been resolved. There was a disagreement between BUET and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in what the PSI (parts per square inch) threshold composition on concrete should be. BUET challenged the Accord's threshold figures of 1,700 PSI, insisting that 2,100 PSI was the acceptable threshold for concrete construction. The Review Panel was temporarily put on hold to resolve the issue, and after much discussion and an evaluation of collected building samples, the Accord and BUET agreed on the 2,045 PSI standard threshold for concrete.

Bangladeshi workers work in a textile factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005.
Outside of structural concerns, there are common issues across many factories relating to electrical safety, which increases the chance for starting fires, says SpauldingImage: AP

The Review Panel is now back on track and reviewing all of the partners' recommendations for safety, closure and partial closure of factories.

Who is in charge of financing the security improvements Alliance recommends?

Alliance Member companies have made $100 million in affordable capital available to factory owners to help cover the cost of factory improvements. In partnership with others, the Alliance also successfully advocated for the Bangladesh government to eliminate current import tariffs on sprinkler systems and fire doors, which threaten to put critical improvements out of reach for many factory owners. In addition, the Alliance is in talks with the International Finance Corporation to launch a 20 million USD low-cost loan program for any Alliance factory interested in low cost financing to support remediation.

In addition to lowering the cost of remediation through the elimination of import tariffs on fire equipment and making available low cost loans to those factories in need of support, the Alliance has also made available up to five million USD to compensate workers who are displaced or otherwise impacted due to factory closures or suspensions. We have provided compensation directly to negatively impacted workers. In addition, the Alliance Board recently increased the amount of money provided for worker compensation from two to four months of salary.

Now that Alliance has almost completed the inspection, is remediation the hard part now?

The first phase of our work focused on inspections and safety training and we're on our way to being fully completed this month. In a way, this was the easy part. The process of getting fire doors installed, getting fire sprinkler systems, increasing water capacity for fire suppression and other safety measures are all part of remediation and that will certainly take time and economic resources.

Bangladeshi garments workers stitch at a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, Nov.10, 2005.
Alliance has made available up to five million USD to compensate workers who are displaced or otherwise impacted due to factory closures or suspensionsImage: AP

What more needs to be done to improve worker safety in the Bangladeshi garment industry as a whole?

Remediating factories and ensuring worker safety and empowerment over the long-term is something to which all stakeholders must play a role and remain committed. Through safety trainings for factory managers, the implementation of worker empowerment initiatives and the democratic election of worker health and safety committees, change will be led from the factory floor - where we will also see the greatest impacts on workers and their families.

Ian Spaulding is senior adviser to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.