DHAKA, Bangladesh — Mehedi Ahmed Ansary Ph.D., professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology has been coordinating the National Tripartite Committee’s initiative on the inspection of factories, which is being done by BUET. These initially involve an estimated 2,000 factories, although Ansary believes the number will be closer to 1,300 in the final run — factories which are not listed under the Accord and the Alliance.
The factory inspections started on Nov. 21, 2013, with the help of the International Labour Organization, which has helped coordinate inspections and has provided technical support, including training and logistics. In November 2014, ILO held a workshop urging a more systematic follow-up to the BUET-led factory inspections.
Ansary spoke with WWD about the ground covered so far, and some of the important issues for the coming year.
WWD: There appears to be some confusion about the total number of factories to be reviewed by the NTC. The initial estimate was for 2,000 factories.
Mehedi Ahmed Ansary: My guess is that the maximum number of garment factories in Bangladesh will be closer to 3,000 and that 20 percent of the earlier estimate of 3,500 factories have been closed. I do not believe that there would be more than 1,300 factories that are not covered by the Accord and the Alliance. Out of the total estimated for the Accord earlier of 1,611, there were roughly 200 less, similarly for the Alliance, the final numbers were lower.
WWD: How many inspections have been completed as of now?
M.A.: We have completed 620 factories so far, in 450 buildings. Size-wise, our factories are much smaller, and shared — almost 80 percent of the factories we have are in shared buildings.
WWD: There is a general sense that your inspections are going very slow.
M.A.: It is not like that, but rather that there has been a gap in the process. In the first phase, we had a pact with the International Labour Organization and had a contract for 200 factories. We trained a team of 30 university professors regarding these inspections and, for structural, fire and electrical safety, you know that BUET is regarded very highly in Bangladesh. We completed these by January even though there were a lot of hartals and strikes at that time in Dhaka city.
But the second contract was made by ILO on August 31 this year. So there was a longtime gap. This one was for another 300 factory buildings, which we have completed. We are already writing the reports, and will submit all these reports by the end of this month.
So, although we have done a total of 500 factory buildings so far, there were more factories inside — some buildings have five factories, some have one. Now ILO is thinking of hiring another private agency since there are only a few months left for the second year of Rana Plaza to check the remaining, which I estimate will not be more than 700 factories.
WWD: Do your factories have a different set of challenges than those of the Accord and the Alliance?
M.A.: There are some major differences. The Accord and Alliance have a lot of bigger factories, and they are working with a brand. Our factories are often much smaller. Many of these factories are hard to locate, they often don’t answer phone calls. Some factories are closed.
Another reason is that smaller factory owners are far more unhappy with inspections. In some cases they believed that local people would support them. But it is not about support. If we find the building is not safe we have to take care of it.
Also, on the list we got from ILO, there are many common factories that the Accord and the Alliance have inspected. So we had to call them and ask if the Accord or Alliance had visited them, and sometimes they lied, thinking that if we visit and find a better result it would help them.
Many of these factories are in rented spaces, rather than under their own ownership and since they are subcontracting they do not have that much money. In the case of a building being found unsafe, a detailed engineering assessment has to be performed, which can cost $50,000, on the average, to check the whole building.
Another important thing is that it is easier for the Accord and the Alliance to survey a building because their compliance managers of the brands know where the factories are located as they visit these factories each week and have been outsourcing from there. But in our case we have never visited those factories and it is a challenge to find these located in small alleyways or in locations further out.
So there are a lot of problems that are different from those of factories working with bigger brands.
WWD: What are the priority action items for the factories you have been reviewing?
M.A.: There is one thing that is obviously missing. The Accord and Alliance have already started the Corrective Action Plan, remedial measures. We have not started. We have issued our reports in January, there are some factories that had to take action within six weeks, but who is going to monitor that one? So a review panel, perhaps headed by the Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments, and with some technical people who can oversee the Corrective Action Plan, are essential. This is particularly important because it is almost a year since the review of the first set of factories, and we mentioned six weeks as the time to fix the pending items for the amber factories.
In the case of the Accord and Alliance, they are overseeing the fixing themselves.
WWD: What is your sense of the overall situation of the factories reviewed so far, since BUET is also present on the Review Panel?
M.A.: There is a four-tier classification, and there is a government-established review panel that visits the factories declared in the red, which are the factories that have to be closed immediately. Two professors from BUET are on the review panel, which is headed by the inspector general of factories, a new post created after Rana Plaza, under the Labor Ministry, along with one engineer from the Accord and one from the Alliance.
For a factory that is in the red, they have to visit again within two days and conclude whether the factory is indeed red. We calculate again, and if the panel concludes that it is not red, it has to fix things immediately. Otherwise, the inspector general has the authority to close a factory. An approximate 2 percent of factories overall have been found to be in the red.
Then there is amber, which are roughly 20 percent of total factories, and all the actions have to be carried out within six weeks.
And for yellow it is within six months and green they may continue.
So, in the overall picture, 75 percent of buildings you can say are completely safe and 2 percent are red and 23 percent are amber where you need some faster action.
WWD: How many of your factories have been found to be in the red?
M.A.: Four factories were in the red under the NTC inspections, but after the review panel visited and their recommendations were made, three factories are partially running as of this time, and one is fully closed.
Taking a look at the overall picture, the review panels visited 70 factories in 36 buildings for the NTC, the Accord and the Alliance. Twenty-nine of these are fully closed and 17 are partially closed. We found immediate closure was not required after we revisited the rest — as the necessary remedial measures were taken. But corrective action has to be taken. The Accord has said if the amber factories do not take corrective action within six weeks, they convert to red. But in our case we have not done so. We have to move faster.
WWD: Is the money for remediation for these factories a much bigger issue?
M.A.: There is one option, JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency] has come forward with 800 crore taka, which means $100 million. They have provided $12 million, or 100 crore taka, to the Bangladesh bank already. I think these factories will be able to use that money, which is at a very low interest. It is a common fund, not just for our factories, but will be a possible source.
I think another lending agency like the World Bank will come forward because they are talking with the city development authority of Bangladesh. Probably some funds will come from that channel.
WWD: What would be the hardest part of maintaining this safety going forward?
M.A.: Structural safety is much more difficult and expensive and that is being addressed. Fire and electrical safety is much cheaper. But whether you take full measures or not, fires can be expected to happen. So you have to have constant fire drills — these are mentioned in our building code. In Japan and other countries there are regular fire and earthquake drills, and we have to do the same. Safety measures have to be enforced — there should be at least one compliance manager for each factory who will take on these aspects — not from the Accord or the Alliance or the DIFE, but factories themselves should undertake these measures. This is also necessary to ensure load management. For example, denim is much heavier than other fabric, and stacks of denim have to be managed differently from a load management perspective.
WWD: What are the key changes that need to be made for safer factories in the future in terms of the engineering aspects?
M.A.: The building permit process needs to be addressed in Bangladesh. In 2006, Rana got permission to construct a six story structure. Just two years later, he went back to the local municipal team and asked for a 10 story structure — on the same design, same foundation — nothing changed. Normally for a higher building the columns have to be much bigger, thicker and stronger; there are many structural differences. This permit process has to be rectified.
Second, in Bangladesh the garment factory owners go to an architect for building design and construction. But an architect does the design and the actual structural aspect should be referred to a structural engineer. The factory owners are now beginning to be aware of this. The Accord and Alliance have been raising this issue over and over again, that the proper design of the building is missing.
I think if we can address the building permit process the proper way, and then issues of quality control and quality assurance which are major issues in Bangladesh, then we can move forward. But still there is still a lot of ground to cover.