By  on November 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — Two rival initiatives to improve fire and building safety standards in Bangladesh’s apparel industry have found some common ground at last, agreeing in principle to a set of minimum standards.

The agreement is a major step toward easing what could have been conflicting — and confusing — rules to raise the standards in the South Asian nation’s apparel factories, which have seen a string of industrial accidents that have resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people. But even if consensus is reached, a large percentage of the country’s apparel factories won’t be covered by either initiative.

On Wednesday, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc., VF Corp. and Target Corp., said it has reached agreement on a common set of standards, “pending a few final modifications,” with the larger coalition, the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union and whose member companies include Inditex, Hennes & Mauritz, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Primark and C&A.

In addition to the alliance and accord, the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology is a third party to the agreement on common safety standards, which is being established under the auspices of the International Labor Organization.

“The challenges in Bangladesh are many and complex, and the solution requires collaboration across all interested parties,” said Jeffrey Krilla, president of the alliance. “I am proud of the role the alliance played in setting the foundation for harmonized standards and look forward to shifting our focus to implementation.”

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Between the accord and alliance, about 2,000 Bangladeshi factories will be covered and must adhere to the new set of fire and building safety standards, said Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector of the accord, in an interview. There are some 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, meaning about half are not covered by the accord or the alliance. The majority of those 2,000 factories will be inspected by the ILO as part of its national action program.

The accord’s member companies use 1,700 factories in Bangladesh, according to Loewen. The alliance said Wednesday its members use 686 factories and there is an overlap of about 300 factories used by members in both the alliance and accord.

“Part of the thinking was it would be nice and logical if we were all singing from the same song sheet and have a common set of standards we were inspecting to, with a full understanding that we are all three separate entities that are autonomous and can go our own way,” Loewen said.

One example of a common standard is the requirement that fire doors be installed on each floor of a multistory building, dividing the factory floor and the stairwell, Loewen said. Another common standard requirement is the installation of a fire alarm system.

Despite an agreement on common safety standards, there is no common enforcement mechanism between the three entities, which will maintain their autonomy in that area, Loewen noted.

“There is still very much autonomy and there will be some differences how people do their enforcement and what teeth they have,” Loewen said.

The accord will begin to search for technical engineering contract firms in three broad groups, including fire protection, electrical safety inspection and structural safety inspection, he said. Eventually, the accord plans to build a team of its own inspectors to supplement or replace the contractors. Loewen said the accord is in the process of developing a one-day inspection per factory with coordination among the three teams of inspectors.

In comparison, the alliance has established a committee of experts to independently analyze inspections and safety audits conducted by its individual brand and retailer member companies. The alliance could eventually certify independent inspectors.

Wal-Mart, for example, hired Bureau Veritas to conduct electrical, fire and building safety assessments, and this week released the first tranche of safety audits at 75 of the 200 factories it uses in Bangladesh. The company also plans to hire a team of 10 engineers to regularly inspect factories and operate out of its Bangladesh sourcing office.

“We are working step by step in the process of first harmonizing the standards, while companies are conducting inspections and, on a parallel track, we are doing an equivalency process to make sure the inspections are up to the harmonized standards,” Krilla said. “Going forward, our committee of experts will certify qualified inspectors.”

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