What is the solution?

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That was the question being asked by more than 30 buyers from global retailers at a meeting with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in an attempt to begin addressing working conditions in the world’s second-largest exporter of textiles and apparel. The meeting Monday followed the collapse of an eight-story building containing apparel factories in the Dhaka suburb of Savar last week. The tragedy claimed the lives of 386 people, with several hundred still missing. The five apparel factories in the building reportedly employed 3,200 people.

Representatives of companies such as Gap Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., H&M, C&A, G-Star, Inditex, Levi Strauss & Co., Marks and Spencer plc, Tesco plc, Target Corp., New Wave, Nike Inc. and Primark attended the meeting, a BGMEA official said.

“We have to see something credible being done regarding building safety,” said Jenefa Jabbar, regional director of Penney’s, at the meeting.

Roger Hubert, vice president of Li & Fung Ltd., observed that there was a need to implement laws quickly for setting standards for building construction to avert further tragedies.

There are more than 5,000 factories in Bangladesh employing more than 3.6 million people. BGMEA officials requested that buyers consider extending shipment deadlines without penalties, given the unforeseen circumstances after the tragedy at Savar. They said that production had been slow due to political strikes in the country as well and that they sincerely hoped the buyers would “consider the situation and be flexible enough in extending the shipment dates by 15 days across the board,” and to avoid air shipment as much as possible.

Over the last week, the apparel industry in Bangladesh has been in a state of chaos, with protests, shutdowns, sagging morale and a fear of losing the global buyers that are important to the industry.

The answer to the question of “What’s next?” after the meeting on Monday was the formation of a committee.

“We have decided to form a committee including representatives from buyers to determine the terms of references regarding assessment of all the safety-related issues of the RMG [ready-made garment] units, including their building structure,” said BGMEA president Atiqul Islam.

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The buyers will give a list of the names of their representatives within a week for formation of the committee to the BGMEA to decide the future course of action.

The Bangladesh government formed another committee to look into the situation on Monday. The committee would have greater powers, with an officiating state minister to visit each garment factory in Bangladesh to check on building conditions, work environment and fire-safety measures, he said. The committee would include members from different segments, such as disaster management, commerce and labor, and would present a report on what further action should be taken, a government official told WWD.

Other committees have also been formed in the past few days to look at the incident in Savar.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has created a seven-member inquiry committee, to be headed by an additional secretary; the Ministry of Labor & Employment has established a five-member inquiry committee, which will be headed by the director of labor; the deputy commissioner of Dhaka has constituted an inquiry committee headed by an additional district magistrate, and the BGMEA has formed a nine-member investigation committee led by its second vice president S.M. Mannan.

After the Tazreen Fashions factory fire last November that claimed the lives of 111 garment workers, several committees were formed to monitor and focus on fire-safety hazards and improve labor conditions at factories.

While many garment union leaders are cynical about the role of more committees, which some of them see simply as additional bureaucracy, others believe it is the only way to find a resolution to a situation that could quickly ruin the country’s economy and position as a garment manufacturer for the world.

This sentiment of global and local partnerships was also reiterated thousands of miles away, among the retailers in Canada on Monday at a meeting organized by the Retail Council of Canada in Toronto. Joe Fresh, a clothing line owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd. whose brands were being manufactured by a factory in Rana Plaza, was among those at that meeting. The brand has been criticized by customers who have threatened to boycott it.

“We want to share with you that we will be providing compensation for the families of the victims who worked for our supplier. We are working to ensure that we will deliver support in the best and most meaningful way possible, and with the goal of ensuring that victims and their families receive benefits now and in the future. We are working on the details, and we will update you as soon as we can,” the company said.

The retail council aims to issue a report later this week, according to press reports.

In addition, Wal-Mart Stores, Gap and H&M met with other retailers, organizations and labor groups in Eschborn, Germany on Monday at the headquarters of the German agency GIZ to develop a program to improve Bangladesh’s industrial infrastructure. The meeting took place as the European Union reportedly said it is considering action to pressure Bangladesh to improve working conditions. The EU is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner.

While the government and other organizations have been looking ahead, the situation at Rana Plaza remained grim as rescue teams have been soldiering on, cutting through cement and stone. They have said that it was unlikely additional survivors would be found.

On Tuesday morning, relatives of missing garment workers thronged the site in protest, claiming that the government had been hiding bodies to minimize the death toll.

Government officials were quick to deny the accusations. They said vehicles leaving the site were expressly being searched to ensure that no bodies were removed without permission and that such accusations undermined their efforts over the past week.

Other protestors stopped traffic on highways on Tuesday morning, injuring more than a dozen people and damaging 25 vehicles, according to police officials. Many of the groups chanted for a death penalty for Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza.

Rana was apprehended by police Sunday and placed under arrest.

He and the four others who had been arrested on Saturday — including Aminul Islam, chairman of Phantom Apparels Ltd. and Phantom Tack Ltd.; Anisur Rahman, chairman of Ether Tex; Bazlus Samad Adnan, chairman of New Wave Buttons, and its managing director, Mahbubur Rahman Tapash — were brought to the High Court on Tuesday.

The court ordered all the movable and immovable property of the accused to be confiscated and their bank accounts frozen.

The accused were also instructed to pay garment workers their salaries from their accounts through BGMEA.