A.M. Ahad Associated Press Bangladesh garment workers rally last month, protesting work perils including a fatal fire and a factory building's collapse.

Apparel factory danger lingers

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 12:08 pm

DHAKA, Bangladesh – Not even two months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building claimed more than 1,100 lives, a team of engineers arrived to assess another factory in the center of the capital. It was named Al-Hamra Garments, and it was one of hundreds of factories undergoing post-disaster inspections as Bangladesh sought to prove that its critical apparel industry was safe.

But this inspection, conducted in mid-June, was startling. The two engineers discovered that the eight-story factory was partly propped up by temporary cast-iron pillars placed on the ground floor. Several original beams and columns were cracked or disintegrating. And the factory was open for business, with more than 1,000 workers producing clothing for a Bangladeshi apparel conglomerate whose customers include Wal-Mart and Gap.

"Considering the severity of the building condition it is recommended that the use of the building be discontinued immediately," the two inspectors, professors at the country's top engineering college, concluded in their preliminary assessment report.

Yet last Saturday, nearly two weeks after the inspection, Al-Hamra Garments was still open. "The factory is fine," said an administrator, Shafiul Azam Chowdhury, on Saturday afternoon. He said two other inspection teams had concluded that the temporary propping made the building safe enough to continue operations during repairs.

"No problem," he added in a telephone interview.

Bangladesh's garment industry, now the world's second-leading clothing exporter, after China's, is still struggling to recover from the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. Government officials and industry leaders called for inspections to ensure the structural integrity of the country's 5,000 garment factories.

But two months after the collapse, the inspections process is disorganized and haphazard, with unclear lines of authority. The Ministry of Textiles is overseeing some inspections. An industry trade group is organizing others. The local development authority in Dhaka is involved, and the country's top engineering school is playing a central role. Some global brands have also sent teams.

The situation at Al-Hamra Garments underscores the confusion. On Saturday, after a reporter for the New York Times visited the factory and began making inquiries, factory officials and the building's owner initially defended the decision to remain open. But late that night, company officials reversed course. The next morning, they closed the factory.

"We reviewed all the reports, and our managing director decided to close it," Chowdhury said in a later telephone interview.

Inspecting Bangladesh's garment factories is an acutely complicated task. No government agency is certain of precisely how many such factories operate in Bangladesh, or where they are located. Some inspectors are discovering that building plans filed with government agencies do not always match the actual buildings. Many factories built during the 1980s and 1990s have no architectural drawings at all.

Critics often blame this lack of regulation on Dhaka's development authority, known as Rajuk. Last week, the authority's director told members of Bangladesh's parliament that roughly 8,000 buildings in Dhaka, the national capital, lacked required approvals or violated construction codes.

In a later interview, the authority's chief engineer blamed part of the problem on manpower: Rajuk has only 40 inspectors to oversee 1 million structures in Dhaka.

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, there was a rush to inspect factories. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a leading industry trade group, quickly hired a staff of 10 engineers and announced that 19 factories had been closed during inspections.

But the inspection process quickly took on an ad hoc quality. One executive complained of submitting to inspections from five different entities. Most factories have not yet been inspected at all.

Meanwhile, reports in the Bangladeshi media about cracks in various factories have fueled fear and anger among workers. Last week, hundreds of people demonstrated in the industrial suburb of Savar after local officials closed their building, Razzak Plaza, in response to a local television report about cracks in the structure's rooftop canteen.

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