Checks find flaws in Bangladesh garment factories

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Inspections of Bangladesh garment factories under a new safety initiative have found cracked support beams, extra floors apparently built without permits and exposed electrical cables chewed by rats.

Overly heavy structures on roofs, substandard building materials and even an unauthorized helicopter pad were also among the problems revealed in the first round of inspection reports released Tuesday.

The inspections are being funded by a group of mostly European fashion brands in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in April last year. They plan to check some 1,500 garment factories in Bangladesh this year. The country’s garment industry, its biggest export earner, has more than 5,000 factories overall.

The collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, the capital, highlighted grim conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which has become a major supplier to global fashion brands and retailers that are attracted by wages that are lower than in China and other developing countries.

The initial round of inspections for structural, electrical and fire safety covered just 10 factories which were chosen first because they had multiple floors and were deemed a higher risk. The Bangladesh Accord Foundation that is overseeing the safety pact said 250 more inspections will be completed by the end of March and the rest by the end of August.

Among the safety concerns found were “multiple hairline cracks” in floor slabs of a 10-story factory belonging to Rio Fashion Wear Ltd in Dhaka. The same factory’s support columns were also found to have a weaker kind of concrete — brick aggregate — than the stronger stone aggregate type that was listed in the building’s designs.

Another factory, Viyellatex Ltd., lacked permit documentation for two of its eight stories including a helipad. It also had cracks in support beams with moisture indicating that the cracking was more than superficial.

Among the 30 electrical problems at a third plant, Alif Garments Ltd., were electrical cables lying on floors without protection or support and wiring running through uncovered wooden ducts with the insulation “damaged by rats.”

But none of the problems found at the first 10 factories resulted in their closure. Rather, repairs and reinforcements were ordered, since the inspectors did not deem any immediate danger of collapse or fire, said Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector of the accord.

However, production was temporarily halted at two other factories in the second round of ongoing inspections because of dangers, Loewen said.

The clothing brands supplied by the factories were not released, as per the rules of the five-year safety pact signed by more than 150 companies.

The other seven factories whose reports were released Tuesday were Anlima Texile, Big Boss, Fashion Island, Grameen Knitwear, Majumder Fashions, Red Point Jackets and Rio Fashion Wear/Rio Design.

Thirty-eight teams of international fire, electrical, and structural engineers are working with Bangladeshi engineers and technicians on the inspections.

An official of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said it welcomes the inspections.

“We have no problems with this. These 10 factories will implement the recommended corrective measures without hampering their production,” association Vice President Shahidullah Azim said Tuesday.

“We just expect them to be sensible enough about the harsh reality in which owners run their factories,” Azim said.

He said the two closed factories will have to pay three months of salary to nearly 6,000 workers under local law, and for that “we have formally sought assistance from the accord and the brands.”

The global agreement, known as the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, has been signed by mostly European brands and only a handful of U.S. brands, including Abercrombie &Fitch and PVH Inc., the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.

The deal requires companies to pay up to $500,000 per year to administer the inspections, which are backed by labor groups such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Workers’ Rights Consortium. The International Labour Organization acts as the independent chair of the group.

Separately, more than two dozen North American retailers who declined to join the accord signed a five-year agreement that aims to improve safety but seeks to spread accountability across a wide spectrum, from government to the factory owners. The retailers include Gap Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., VF Corp. and Target Corp.

The North American alliance said it has inspected 365 factories out of 830 currently being used in Bangladesh by its members. The remaining inspections are to be completed by July 10.

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