In Wake of Rana Plaza Tragedy, Bangladesh Garment-Factory Inspections Floundering

The Dhaka garment-factory collapse of April 24 claimed the lives of 1,129 people, but rectifying atrocious working practices amid an international uproar is proving a tall order

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Andrew Biraj / Reuters

Workers sew clothes at a garment factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, on June 16, 2013

Just a short drive from Rana Plaza’s ruins, the garment factory under inspection looked a world apart: spacious, well lit and full of workers paid above the minimum wage. As they toured the sprawling work floor, state inspectors noted minor infractions on their clipboards — “clutter in the passageways,” “too many boxes blocking the fire extinguisher” — drawing nods of concern from the managers trailing behind. Then a big one: not enough emergency exits. After a series of high-profile fire disasters, this was the kind of violation that should shut down a factory until fixed. But in Bangladesh today, inspectors have no actual enforcement authority; they merely make recommendations. “[The inspections] are nothing to us — the teams come for an hour, they take some free shirts, and then they go away,” quipped a factory manager, who did not want to be named.

(PHOTOS: Bangladesh’s Worst Industrial Accident: Scenes From a Terrifying Tragedy)

In the months since the deadliest incident in garment-industry history, a host of government agencies and third-party auditors are being deployed to ensure that Bangladeshi suppliers and Western buyers that have signed on to separate safety initiatives follow through on their commitments. This month, inspections have also begun to assess at least 2,000 factories that are not part of these accords. Yet for all the public promises, leading garmentmakers privately say scant resources mean scrutiny remains superficial at best, paid off at worst. Coupled with the vast underworld of illegal subcontractors that backstop the bigger factories and operate unchecked, they insist that efforts to clean up the $20 billion-a-year industry will take far longer than anyone dares to admit.

So far, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the trade body that represents apparel exporters, says of the roughly 2,500 operational export factories, 620 have been inspected and 20 shut down by owners who don’t want to jeopardize the industry’s standing.

Although teams from the country’s top engineering university and the civil-development authority have reportedly checked several hundred more, it has not been clear which and where, as no coordinating body has overseen the inspections process. Indeed, some owners grumble their factories have been inspected more than once, while others go forgotten. Labor-ministry officials now say a common action plan has been agreed upon by all parties to fix the problem, but there’s no doubt it’s going to be a long haul.

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Much can be chalked up to a staggering shortage of manpower and resources. The BGMEA has just 10 inspectors to its name. The fire department has 80, and says it needs at least 800. The engineering university fields just 15 teams, all of them full-time teachers, while the labor ministry is struggling to hire and train 200 more inspectors by December. Once in place, everyone will still have to contend with Dhaka’s infernal traffic, which limits inspection teams to just a few factories a day. Thorough tests on a dubious facility could take a week, or longer. “It’s a very slow process,” says Reaz Bin Mahmood, the BGMEA’s vice president, “but we have to give our full effort.”

The stakes are high. In late June, the U.S. cut all trade benefits for Bangladesh. While garments were left out, the move yielded a stern warning from the E.U., which buys about 60% of the country’s exports. With billions in the balance, should another major industrial accident happen, some owners say they can’t afford to trust erratic, underfunded government agencies to do their diligence for them. “Many of them, they don’t really check things, they don’t even have the knowledge to check,” says one owner, who, like every manufacturer interviewed by TIME, did not want to be named.

Another leading garment producer, who ranks among the top 10 exporters in Bangladesh, explains how one of his premises, an aging former cigarette factory, was making him uneasy. When the previous owner refused to provide schematics, he assumed it was because of shoddy materials that typify building construction in the country. Bribing state inspectors would have been “no problem,” he says, but instead he hired an independent engineer to do structural X-rays and other intensive tests, opting to close the factory until a costly retrofit is completed. “It’s not about compliance,” he says. “It’s self-interest.”

(WATCH: Fleeing Catastrophe, Stuck in the Slums of Bangladesh)

Major Western firms now investing in safety improvements say they are confident they can live up to their promises. A group of more than 80 mainly European retailers estimates it will take five years to do comprehensive inspections and declare the nearly 1,000 factories that supply its brands safe. For their part, North American retailers that formed their own alliance say they will finish vetting 500 factories by next summer. While the groups differ on terms and timetables, both are using third-party agencies to do their inspections and have agreed to uphold a ban on subcontracting that has undermined their supply chains, with fatal results.

Anonymously, owners in Bangladesh maintain that such sweeping pronouncements are disingenuous. A prominent manufacturer who makes jeans for top U.S. labels asserted that independent inspectors hired by foreign brands are also known to take some bribes, no surprise given that they represent companies that continue to “race to the bottom” to get the most they can at the lowest price. Though auditing certificates on the walls of his factory attested to a sterling record on safety compliance, and some inspectors take their work seriously, he remains adamant that venality is commonplace. “Everybody is taking money,” he says.

As for the problem of subcontracting, there are the “frontline” factories that line the highways — and then there are thousands more lower-level suppliers that are directly or indirectly involved in the export trade, attaching zippers or trimming threads. Located in basements, on rooftops, often signless and buried deep inside teeming residential areas, they tend to defy the very notion of what a factory is and remain completely outside the purview of inspection. “Nobody knows how many there are,” says Mehedi Ahmed Ansari, a leading engineer and inspector. And with the inevitable worker strikes, shipping delays and assorted variables that are always poised to stymie business in Bangladesh, some well-regarded garment manufacturers confess that they are also unavoidable.

“There will be subcontracting every day — you cannot stop it,” says one of the owners, who admits that he continues to farm out smaller stages of production to meet the pressure of massive orders that must be turned around on increasingly short notice. “Officially, the brands will say no more, that they are controlling it, but unofficially, it will always happen and they know it.”

— With reporting by Golam Mortuja / Dhaka

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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