To appreciate the Sisyphean task, spend a day with Mohammed Helal Ahmed, 42, a civil engineer in the Dhaka city government, as he struggles through cursory factory inspections.
His day starts with a decrepit government car that breaks down and a list of misspelled factory names with partial addresses. Factory owners deny him entry and stall for time. He encounters blocked fire exits, roofs sagging under heavy water tanks, and former apartment buildings that have been joined haphazardly. Workers whisper about cracks in walls, only to be shushed by security guards.
"It is completely unbelievable," Ahmed said at sundown, sweat pouring off his forehead after surveying four of the seven factories that had been on the day's agenda. "So much work is needed immediately. Real action is needed."
Until such action is taken, Ahmed and his 50 colleagues at the Dhaka Development Authority are mostly compiling data in a superficial survey of the city's factories. Even this basic step is hobbled by shortages of cars, engineers, money and information, emphasizing that efforts to oversee improvements cannot depend on the Bangladeshi government's limited resources.
Instead, any attempt to improve safety conditions for Bangladesh's 3 million or so garment workers will live and die on a coalition including retailers and unions that was cobbled together in the weeks after the horror of Rana Plaza.
Ahmed's surveys are a first round in the process still being hammered out to improve safety in the hope of avoiding disasters like the one at Rana Plaza, the factory building that collapsed and killed 1,127 people a month ago.
In two weeks, Ahmed and his colleagues at the Dhaka Development Authority have surveyed about 300 of more than 3,500 factories in the sprawling capital of 18 million people. Close to 90 percent of those visited evoked serious concerns, warranting immediate repairs or demolitions, said Emdadul Islam, chief engineer at the authority, formally known as the Rajdhani Unnayun Kartripakkha, or Rajuk to locals. About 1,500 more factories outside the city lie in a no-man's land of jurisdictional confusion, he added.
The surveys are supposed to be followed by real inspections, including tests of steel beams and concrete, and then finally plans for remediation, if resources can be found. For now, all that the local officials are trying to do is build a database that includes every factory, to collect photocopies of building plans and approvals, and to eye the situation.
"For evaluation we need experts," said Tarek Uddin Mohammed, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Asia Pacific in Dhaka. "The government doesn't have the necessary work force."
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Discussions continue far from Dhaka, in places like Geneva and Frankfurt, among union leaders and retailers over the best methods for distributing money, and for working with local officials. A group of more than 39 retailers, mostly European, have pledged as much as $500,000 each for five straight years in one major fire and safety monitoring agreement. They've also agreed to pay for upgrades with suppliers.
At a May 23 meeting in Geneva, the International Labor Organization together with retailers discussed the hiring of a safety inspector and team, and pinpointed factories with urgent needs under that agreement, which will cover 2,000 factories, according to Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary of UNI Global Union.
"We want to get moving very quickly," Hoffman said by phone. Though unlikely to start in June, inspections will begin in the coming months, she said.
Five years of renovations and retrofits could cost western retailers and Bangladesh owners as much as $600,000 a factory, or $3 billion over the next five years, according to an estimate by the Workers Right Consortium of Washington. So far, retailers have promised just $2.5 million each for fire safety training and inspections, with the cost of any upgrades to be thrashed out between each factory and the retailers.
Determining the most urgent needs may not be easy, either. Until two weeks ago, the Dhaka authority had no idea how many factories fell under its jurisdiction, let alone their condition. Islam, the chief engineer, borrowed a membership list from the industry lobby. He was surprised to discover 3,500 or so factories, he said in an interview in his office, sitting under a yellowing, map of Dhaka at least 60 years old.
The surveys were begun independent of the retailers' accord and are being supplemented by other documents. Factory owners are submitting structural drawings and soil samples to the development authority as well.
To sort through the mountain of paperwork, the authority has sought help from professors at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said Mohammed Mujibur Rahman, head of the department of civil engineering.
"We are kind of overburdened at this stage, because we have to find time to do this in addition to our academic program," Rahman said. "We are trying to prioritize some of the buildings that are reported to be most at risk and are visiting those first."
A preliminary inspection can take as long as a week. Testing concrete samples, running simulations on models and checking the foundations of buildings can take a month. A 30- member team of structural experts has raced through 100 analyzes in two weeks, while hundreds more pile up.
Before arriving at the first factory for a survey, Ahmed runs into a more basic obstacle. His government-issue, 18-year-old Toyota Hi-Lux, scarred from 266,537 kilometers (166,000 miles) on the road, stalls. He and his colleagues are a half- hour from their destination in Ashulia, a northern suburb bristling with factories. Out comes a hammer, a quart of oil. As the sun climbs higher into the sky, Ahmed crosses off factory names - he had wanted to visit at least seven.
Repairs made, Ahmed's team bounces down a rutted, muddy road to the four-story Neyath Solim Plaza. Shops on the ground floor sell televisions and mobile phones, and a back entrance leads up to Ratul Fabrics, where about 650 workers are packed into two floors, making clothes for Australia's Kmart discount department store, a unit of Wesfarmers, according to managing director Anwarul Islam.
Ahmed asks for documents showing the building plans, the engineers who designed the factory and soil samples. Officials hem and haw, produce some documents and promise to send the rest to his office.
Ahmed tours the factory, walking past piles of green sweatshirts emblazoned with "I Heart NY" graphics, and stops under a long crack running along the east wall. He looks worried, and repeats his request for the engineer's name and firm. On the opposite wall, a long crack runs from floor to ceiling.
The windows have metal grills. In a fire, workers couldn't jump out - they would have to use one of three fire exits, two leading to indoor stairwells and one to an external metal staircase. His colleague steps on the metal staircase outside and reaches for balance as it wobbles under his weight.
"Problems, problems, lots of problems," says Ahmed as he exits the building. "Half the paperwork is missing. The staircase is not safe."
Kmart ceased production at the factory earlier this month and evacuated workers after being informed by the government inspector that the building was unsafe, Tracie Walker, general manager of Kmart Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, said in an email Friday.
A civil engineer sent in by Ratul Fabrics found that cracks in the building walls were non-structural, Walker said. Checks made for Kmart by Intertek Group had the same findings, and two separate reports based on inspections by engineers found the factory is safe and production has resumed, she also said.
The retailer said it had previously decided not to place more orders with Ratul Fabrics because the factory is above a marketplace, which contravenes its own recently revised Ethical Sourcing Policy, though final orders will be completed.
Quick action is needed, said Kalpona Akter, director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, founded by two former child garment workers to promote safer factories.
"There are so many factories that are unsafe, and we need to move faster to ensure the safety of the workers," she said in an interview. "Workers here have waited too long, and paid with their lives for delays."
Under the fire and safety accord, whose supporters include Hennes & Mauritz and Inditex, the two largest clothing retailers, there will be safety inspections and fire safety training at about 2,000 participating factories.
Any upgrade spurred by inspections will be mandatory, with the burden resting on the factory owner. Retailers will negotiate "commercial terms with their suppliers which ensure that it is financially feasible," including joint investments, loans, business incentives or paying directly for renovations, according to the terms of the accord. The deal also requires retailers to continue their orders with the factories for at least two years, ensuring the upgrades are made.
"There is no value in doing the inspection and then not repairing the factory," UNI's Hoffman said. "You can't squeeze money from a stone, and some of these factories don't have the resources, so the prices will have to reflect the real cost of doing business in a safe environment."
At the next factory, Ahmed faces a wall of opposition. Located on the second floor of Shamsher Plaza, a building packed with bank ATMs, restaurants, cigarette shops and clothing stores, Anzir Apparels' security guards stop him from entering the factory. Phone calls are made. ID cards brandished. Voices raised. Finally Mustafa Arif, the administrative director of the factory, lets Ahmed's team in.
Cartons of sweaters stacked six feet high block passageways leading to the fire exits. Stairwells are half occupied by more cartons. Arif pulls out file after file as Ahmed takes note.
Customers include Clayton, based in Lagos, Nigeria, and a Bangladeshi sourcing company called HRM Sourcing.
Since January 2010, Anzir Apparels has sent shipments to American companies including Wet Seal, Cherry Stix and Intertex Apparel, according to shipping data provider Import Genius.
Clayton never had any dealing with Anzir Apparel, said Peter Adeleye, a director reached by phone. Wet Seal, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., did not respond to messages, nor did Intertex. Cherry Stix, based in New York, declined to comment.
One report, by local engineering firm Ilhans Engineers, gives Ahmed pause. It points out that load-bearing columns for the factory, called Unit II, are at the upper end of their capacity. The engineers recommend that storage of materials be kept to a minimum and that no more than a single water tank of 3,000 liters be placed on the roof, which should be kept clear of stagnant water.
Ahmed finds the roof weighed down with six tanks of water: three of 3,000 liters and three of 1,500 liters, about the weight of three elephants. Pools of water have eaten through the roof, showing in large spots on the ceiling of the floor below.
Down the road, at Unit I of Anzir Apparels, Ahmed is even more concerned. As he steps around a pile of 26.99-euro ($34.85) Calliope brand sweaters, he notices cracks on major load-bearing columns. Boxes are stacked so closely together that he has to squeeze through a tiny space near a fire exit leading to a basement factory. A worker grabs him and points to a recent paint job, under which a long crack is still visible. Immediately, a security guard rushes over and hisses at the worker, telling him in Bengali to shut up.
On the roof, as the Muslim workers take a break to pray, Ahmed points out the remnants of a heavy, iron and steel cellphone tower.
"They're scared now, so they are willing to give up thousands of dollars of free rent from the towers," he said. "Earlier, they would have left them up."
For all his exertion, Ahmed is mostly collecting design data. What is not visible is also of concern. Local construction crews tend to use cheaper ingredients to make concrete, and that in turn weakens the resulting structure.
Bangladeshi authorities may receive some help with their inspections as the retailers' accord takes effect, said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL global union who organized the accord, by phone from Geneva.
"Our team will be working hand-in-hand with Bangladeshi government, the suppliers, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the unions," he said. "The retailers and brands just have to pay more. The price of a t-shirt today is that of a bloody t-shirt; it's not a sustainably made t-shirt."
Toward the end of his day, Ahmed discovers some factory construction in Dhaka was never even approved by the city. By a quirk of local politics, the boundaries of Dhaka shifted in 2010, swallowing up a neighboring suburb called Savar. Overnight, the Dhaka city government became responsible for Savar's factories.
Rana Plaza, which collapsed April 24, was one of them. Its construction had been approved by local officials in Savar, and it had not been inspected by Dhaka officials after the 2010 shift, according to interviews with Sheikh Mamman, a member of the planning committee of Rajuk, the Dhaka Development Authority, and Islam, the chief engineer at Rajuk.
On this day, Ahmed stands in front of a seven-story building that was redistricted to Dhaka in 2010. It's actually two adjacent apartment buildings that have been joined at the third floor by putting in concrete slabs and removing walls.
"It was designed as an apartment building, and now it's a factory," he said. "It's a huge issue."
The factory, Dica Tex, makes clothes for a few European brands, including infant clothing for Dimo Tex and t- shirts for Fashion Point and Camel Active, according to labels on clothing. The two German companies, Dimo Tex, based in Wenden, and Camel Active, didn't respond to messages, nor did Fashion Point, which is based in Istanbul. A box containing a single fire blanket hangs by a fire extinguisher near the entrance to each floor, with a warning that the fire blanket is not meant for adults.
The owner, Muhammed Mushoraf, declined to comment when contacted later on his cell phone. Dirk Huette, identified by a factory manager as the managing director of the company, and Abu Ansab Rubel, a director, did not return calls.
Ahmed makes copious notes and asks for photocopies of the building plan, which still show a residential design, with bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and verandas.
He walks around the building, shaking his head, as darkness settles. It's time to return to Dhaka, more than two hours away in traffic. Workers gather at the building's grilled windows. Ahmed waves from the truck and drives off.
Four factories down, some 3,200 left to go.
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