On the Ground With the Alliance in Bangladesh

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety leads a factory inspection on Tuesday in Konabari, in the Gazipur suburb of Dhaka.

Workers in Bangladesh continue to protest about remediation from the Rana Plaza disaster, as well as current conditions.

Workers in Bangladesh continue to protest about remediation from the Rana Plaza disaster, as well as current conditions.

Mayu Saini

DHAKA, Bangladesh — In the tastefully lit conference room, half a dozen men sheaf urgently through files of paper and rolls of drawings. They are distinguished from the factory management by the visitor passes around their necks; conversations between the two sides are earnest and rapid as more files are opened and checked.

This story first appeared in the April 23, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A factory inspection is under way Tuesday morning in Konabari, in the Gazipur suburb of Dhaka, by the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The team of inspectors encompasses specialists in structure, electrical systems and fire safety. In addition, alliance team members including managing director Mesbah Rabin and its adviser on fire protection and life safety Randolph W. Tucker, associate principal of CCRD Engineering Services, are at the site, which is owned by Bangladeshi manufacturer Global Merchants Ltd.

“We plan to complete all the factory inspections by July 10, one year after the formation of the alliance,” Ian Spaulding, senior consultant for the organization, told WWD earlier this week.

The team of inspectors is one of seven the alliance uses for factory inspections, which have become the central focus of developments in the industry in Dhaka in the wake of the tragedy at Rana Plaza a year ago that killed 1,133 people.

Another focus, in different pockets of Dhaka city, is the issue of compensation for workers for the loss of life and limb. That issue is being addressed by a committee seated in Savar, another suburb, which is working to give each of the workers present at Rana Plaza 45,000 taka, or $585 at current exchange, before Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the disaster.

As the people around the conference table finish with their scrutiny of papers, the group of company officials and inspectors heads into the main building to see if it matches up to the plans.

“There is nothing overwhelming about this process that we follow,” Rabin told WWD. “It is very simple and at no time is it meant to intimidate the employers. All we are doing is to help them ensure that their workers stay safe.”

However, several factories have been shut down and others have been asked to make substantial adjustments to their buildings that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and can range from simply picking the lint off the floor or redoing staircases to introducing fireproof doors and adding sprinklers.

Who will pay for these modifications has been creating anxiety as factory owners say they don’t have the money and that brands must shoulder some of the costs. It makes the process of inspection more fearful.

“Some factories are going to be scared and anxious about anything that we do. They’re scared of the ramification, about losing their business. Others view it as a way to strengthen themselves and tell workers their factories are safer after the process,” said Spaulding, adding that the alliance has been introducing numerous points of differentiation from the other inspection group, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, including adding more stakeholders to the board. “We have members of BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] on our board, we’ve done a fair amount of outreach to members of the industry to establish good relations with them,” said Spaulding. “In addition, we have offered mini training and orientation sessions for factory owners so that they can understand more about what we’re doing. We have partnered with Bangladeshis and we have an office run by Bangladeshis in Bangladesh. The team is there to run this program with our support. With the staff that we have selected — we provide local support, local engineers with international oversight and support and that is a very different model” than the accord, which is primarily made up of major U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc.

Spaulding pointed out that it was all part of the need to build long-term suitable solutions.

For employers struggling with the remediation costs, he said that the alliance had “assembled individual companies that will give out $100 million in low-cost loans. It is a real commitment; it is real money. The cost of capital in Bangladesh is 14 to 18 percent in the local banks and we will be providing at no cost or 3 to 4 percent.”

Looking at the anniversary of Rana Plaza, Spaulding noted that “a lot had gotten done” in the last nine months, especially in terms of its influence on global supply chains.

“But the reality is there is still so much more work that needs to be done. So it’s bittersweet and all of us should be proud of where we are when you think of the long-term needs and our overall plans and objectives. We are really at the very beginning phase of this effort.”

As for the group at Global Merchants, it is the start of several phases of examination of the entire building and the inspectors move past the boiler room, the generator room, and note the need for fire doors. The group then moves up the staircase, noticing small things that can make a difference — such as a handrail that runs down the center of the stairs. The company employs about 1,600 people and each floor is well lit. Structural columns are closely examined and Tucker noted the need for more fire doors. Although the building is below the limit of 65 feet — buildings taller than that must have sprinkler systems — Tucker’s preference for sprinklers comes up. “A large number of factories here do need some work related to fire safety,” he said.

Spaulding earlier pointed out that the idea was to prevent any further disasters.

“We also have to address some of the root causes of Tazreen and Rana Plaza and one of those is that workers did not know what to do. They were not empowered to stand up and speak on their own behalf, they did not have a worker representative who would allow them to stand firm when managers or supervisors are telling them what to do,” he said.

Several hours later, the inspection team is back in the conference room. B.K. Paul, managing director of Global Merchants, sits at the head of the table with the team of six inspectors, Rabin and Tucker around the table. Standing just behind Paul are six of his worker committee members.

It is time for the verdict. Ironically, on Tuesday morning, a local newspaper described the closing down of factories as “based on the whims” of the inspectors. So the tension is palpable.

Rabin speaks first. “We are not here to close the factory — we are here to save lives. No more Rana Plaza, no more Tazreen,” he said. “The world is concerned about the safety of the Bangladesh sector.”

He shows the workers standing behind the factory owner a bottle of water and tells them that they can describe it as half empty or half full. The inspectors start telling the owner and the worker representatives in detail about what they have seen. The structural engineer goes first, then the electrical engineer and the fire expert.

It turns out that the glass is mostly full.

The workers are encouraged to ask questions, as is the owner. Then the workers, visibly relieved, troop away. Most of them have been with the company for three to five years and Mohammed Saifu, who is a knitting operator, said that looking for work elsewhere was not in the cards since the factory met their needs. The others nodded vigorously.

The inspection team has delivered their verdict earnestly and with great detail. There are small things, but the factory passes muster and one thing is certain: it has good documentation and a good structure.

Paul sits easily, talking about the fact that it’s been a rough year in many ways. He looks at the picture of a dream factory that is hanging on his wall.

“I was ready to make this last year. Hopefully, soon that dream can be completed,” he said.