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Rob Wayss, executive director of Bangladesh operations for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, has been the best-known outsider among labor and employers in the country for years. The temporary office of the accord is an open and spacious apartment, and as Wayss sits in his room at the corner, he discusses the situation in the country today.
This story first appeared in the April 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Do you feel the first anniversary of Rana Plaza is being overly marked out in Dhaka?
Rob Wayss: Well, it is a major thing to mark. More than a year ago, an eight-story building collapsed and more than 1,100 workers died. The accord does not have any particular activities that we’ve planned for the 24th, though; I think one of the best tributes we can make to the workers that have perished and those that were injured or affected is to earnestly and purposefully go about our work in inspecting factories and identifying things that need to be fixed, and working with the brands and the worker representatives and the owners to fix them. And we will during the course of the day on the 24th be participating in some of the activities that are being organized by other organizations.
WWD: How is the team and the office for the accord settling in?
R.W.: We moved into this office [in Gulshan] Dec. 1. Our permanent office lease took effect April 1 but is still being set up.
As for the team, Brad [Loewen, chief safety inspector] started in the early part of November but moved permanently in the first week of December.
It is a growing team. We have seven full-time people that are working on inspection and post-inspection case management. Brad has five engineers who he’s made officers and they have accepted. One started on Sunday, and the others will be starting over the next few weeks. We have a few support people on board and we will bring on two more case handlers over the next week or so. So our team is probably approaching about 15 now, but when all is said and done, we’ll have the better part of a 100 [person] full-time staff probably toward the end of the year.
We envision that the main office we have here will have 40 staff, and we envision an office in Chittagong and an office in Savar or Ashulia will have 20 or so and two additional worker centers will have probably three or so staff. Then you have to add support staff.
WWD: You’ve been working with the industry in Bangladesh for a while. Do you get the sense that a lot of progress has actually been made over the last year?
R.W.: Oh yes. A lot has happened. The agreement has been signed. Initially, there were 17 signatories, it quickly went up to 27, and now there are more than 160 brands and retailers that have signed on. That’s an enormous response. You’ve got an operation on the ground that is functioning, we’ve got 110 engineers and technical advisers who have been in the field the last couple of months doing inspections on fire safety and electrical safety and building structural safety. They’ve done more than 300 fire and electrical inspections and 250 or so building and structural inspections, and the first series of reports have been published on our Web site. The first large-scale inspection reports are being uploaded and shared with factory owners and the brands and workers’ representatives so they can start finalizing the corrective plans — those will be uploaded to our Web site.
The additional factories where findings were found are starting to fix these things.
WWD: Do employers consider the accord and its decisive actions as cultural imperialism in some sense?
R.W.: I don’t think they take it as imperialism. They’re difficult situations. Nobody wants to make that decision and it’s not taken lightly. It’s taken very, very seriously and our engineers look at every possible alternative or measure short of possibly doing evacuation or shutdown. But we’ve had eight cases where the numbers and the data just haven’t been able to match. They’ve reached the determination that these buildings are unsafe in the conditions that they are in now. But they can be made safe. So the review panel that has been established under the National Plan of Action, in eight cases we’ve had to request that that be convened, and in some of those cases we were able to figure out some massive load management and load removal where you manage storage and some water tanks, etc., where they were able to continue all production. At others we were able to do interventions and allow partial occupancy and partial production where the building would be safe while they do the structural strengthening where it’s needed.
I think we’ve had one case now where it was determined that there was no way occupancy could take place unless [there were] remediation measures and there’s one that was inspected on Sunday where it is possible that [there will be] no occupancy at all until certain remediation is taken. But you know there is a certain reason for this: these buildings are not safe.
The purpose of the accord being here is that a factory collapsed and we’re all looking at ways to make it safer, and everyone has committed in order to make sure that this will never happen again. These tough decisions have to be made and have to be executed.
WWD: Are you on line for your deadline to finish all inspections by September?
R.W.: Oh yes, all inspections will be completed by September. There will be 110 inspectors in the field.
WWD: It’s been going slowly so far though.
R.W.: No, it hasn’t been going slowly. We started in February and we’ve done almost 300 since February. That’s seven weeks. These are the highest qualified engineers in the world. They know the code here and they know international building and safety standards and they have a tremendous amount of experience including in Bangladesh in the garment industry. These are the best people in the world. And it’s a mix of internationals and Bangladeshis — these guys are the best — and I shouldn’t say these guys, there are women, too.
WWD: What is the biggest challenge for you on the ground?
R.W.: Oh my goodness, what’s the biggest challenge? That’s a hard question to answer. The scale of the accord and the number of factories and the number of components as you’re staffing up, the challenge of making sure the inspections are logistically well coordinated and that the support that’s needed for the post-inspection period is adequate and of good quality, and making sure that we’re doing adequate outreach to brand representatives in-country and the supplier factories and the worker representatives of the 14 IndustriALL structures that we work with. I am attending to all these moving parts. Staffing up has been one of the hard parts as well.
WWD: For you, is it a personal nightmare?
R.W.: Oh no — for someone like me, with my background? It’s the best job in the world. It is exhausting — it is an incredible amount of work but I’m not complaining. I sincerely believe I have the best job in the world.