Insight: Bangladesh struggles to check garment factories are safe

Sun Jul 28, 2013 5:11pm EDT
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By Nandita Bose

DHAKA (Reuters) - In the weeks since the Rana Plaza collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, at least five different Bangladesh agencies have sent teams to begin inspecting the estimated 5,600 factories that make up the nation's $20 billion garment industry.

But there's little coordination between the agencies, and senior government officials are unable to say just how many factories have been checked. Estimates vary from just 60 to 340.

While U.S. and European retailers which buy the bulk of Bangladesh-made clothing had hoped to complete factory inspections within 9-12 months, inspectors and government officials say this will take at least 5 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 garment 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 Stores Inc, Tesco Plc and Hennes & Mauritz AB's 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. Islam showed Reuters certificates from Bureau Veritas, the firm Wal-Mart has hired to inspect suppliers, and Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA), which inspects Tesco factories. Others to have carried out checks include the Bangladesh textiles ministry and the national garment association, whose 4-person inspection crew spent 3 hours hunting for cracks that could indicate structural flaws like those at Rana Plaza - an illegally built tower where safety warnings were ignored.

A Reuters reporter 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.   Continued...

Workers sort clothes at a garment factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh June 16, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj