NEW DELHI — Six months ago, after more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers were killed in the collapse of a high-rise warren of garment factories, international outcry led to pledges by western retailers and the government to set up a large-scale inspection regime and a new wage system.
Today, no Bangladeshi garment factory has been inspected under any of the three programs that sprang from those promises, according to officials at the programs. Nor has danger ceased in the $19 billion industry: This month, nine workers died when a fire ripped through a factory in suburban Dhaka that provided material for plants supplying clothing to companies including Wal-Mart Stores.
The Rana Plaza collapse, on April 24, is considered the world’s worst garment factory disaster.
The programs’ slow implementation comes against a backdrop of worker unrest that has stalled production and led to massive street demonstrations over safety conditions and wages, which are set at $39 a month before overtime. One, on Oct. 15, was quelled by the Industrial Police, a rubber-bullet-firing riot force set up two years ago to bring protesting garment workers under control.
“There is no time to lose anymore,” Dutch ambassador Gerben Sjoerd de Jong said Tuesday in announcing a $24.2 million program funded by the Dutch and British governments and the International Labor Organization to support the Bangladeshi government inspections. “The inspections need to begin now.”
The first international staff for an inspections system led by European retailers, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, arrives next week. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group of mostly North American retailers, says the list of the factories its signatories use is ongoing and no inspections staff is in place in the country.
The Bangladeshi government, which will inspect the remaining plants under the Tripartite National Action Plan, has not completed the list of plants that fall under its purview or beefed up staffing for the inspections.
And so far, the three groups have yet to agree upon what a universally acceptable inspection will look like, a delay that De Jong said was holding up the process and endangering workers’ lives. Until then, retailers are conducting their own independent reviews.
An hour-and-a-half drive from Dhaka, in a suburb called Gazipur, the fire-scarred building that burned on Oct. 8 shows the costs of poor working conditions.
Emdad Hossain, director of the Aswad Composite Mills factory, was in his second-floor office at 5:33 p.m. when he heard somebody scream “fire.” Flames were leaping from floor to floor.
Hossain and his men deployed the plant’s firefighting equipment while waiting for firetrucks that had to navigate a traffic-clogged highway and a narrow, potholed road to get to the four-story building. By the time the blaze was controlled, nine men had burned to death or died from smoke inhalation, according to the police. Television footage showed flames shooting out of the roof.
“It was completely unbelievable,” Hossain said two days afterward. “We never imagined it would spread so fast.”
On Oct. 13, the Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments filed criminal charges against the factory’s owners, Palmal Group. The department alleged Palmal had been warned that it did not have enough fire extinguishers, did not fully report its electrical machinery, had expanded the facility without approvals, and its walkways were too narrow.
Nafis Sikder, a director at Dhaka-based Palmal, denied the allegations in an Oct. 22 phone interview, saying the company never received notice of the violations.
Palmal had supplied clothing to retailers such as H&M, Wal-Mart subsidiary Asda, and Primark Stores, a British-based unit of Associated British Foods, according to statements from the companies.