In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, engineers conducted a study indicating that three-fifths of garment factories in Bangladesh are major safety hazards, and/or vulnerable to collapse. Results were recently reviewed by The Guardian.
Last month, the Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka made headlines around the world when concrete pillars supporting the eight-storey building buckled. More than 1,100 workers – mostly young women manufacturing clothes for UK retailers – were killed, making the tragedy one of the world’s worst industrial accidents.
In showing that the lives of millions of Bangladeshi workers are at risk when they go to work each day producing goods for western companies, the survey is a red flag for western retailers. Following global outrage at the Rana Plaza collapse, western firms are now trying to protect their images (and hopefully workers) by improving conditions in the Bangladesh factories that supply their stores. Bangladesh is currently the second largest global clothing supplier. More than 80% of those goods are exported to American and European consumers. The $20+ billion industry employs nearly 4 million workers, primarily young women, and is an overwhelming part of the national economy in Bangladesh.
According to Prof Mehedi Ansary of, who led the survey team at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology “Somewhere around 60% of the buildings are vulnerable. This doesn’t mean they will collapse in the next week or month, but it does mean that to leave them unchanged would be irresponsible.”
Managers ignored workplace safety practices and warning signs like cracks, which emerged just days before the Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April. Workers stated that their bosses maintained there was no cause for concern, and to go back to work.
The team from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) is now conducting a survey of buildings across the country that house workshops, and studying both soil tests and original building plans. While the country has over 3,000 active factories, more than 5,000 permits have been issued. Many – especially those located in Dhaka proper – are converted buildings that formerly served as residences or offices.
According to employment attorneys and labor lawyers, many of these factories have been the subject of media attention in the past because of excessive workplace injuries, workplace discrimination, on-the-job hazards, and harassment.
Various agreements in western companies including Primark, Walmart, Carrefour, H&M, Gap and Tesco are currently undergoing negotiation to improve factory conditions. Those agreements would commit retailers to follow through on several measures that could reduce the chance of more tragedies, and provide funds for those improvements.
Fire safety is also an ongoing problem. A series of deadly fires have raged through the factories of Dhaka in the past 4 years.
Just last month, reporters for the Guardian toured a five-storey factory employing more than 400 workers; those employees were tightly packed into lines where they stuffed fleece and sewed winter jackets for European retailers. There was only one narrow stairwell, which was un-passable because of piles of cardboard boxes; the windows were locked and one of the fire exits had been town out. Employees stated that safety violations, worker injuries and workers’ rights were simply not part of the conversation at their job. These safety hazards were simply to be accepted and tolerated as part of the workplace environment.