Garment factory owners in Bangladesh heaved a sigh of relief on Thursday as news spread quickly about a meeting between the government, industry representatives and representatives of international retailers and an agreement not to duplicate factory inspections.

Officials of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said that the burden of meeting different inspections standards of the Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh, a consortium of 150 mostly European retailers and the Alliance for Worker Safety, a consortium of 26 retailers from North America, had been one of the primary concerns among factory owners.

Commerce minister Tofail Ahmed’s said after the meeting that the two sides would accept each others inspections. This was in response to repeated requests by factory owners to draw attention to the fact that they would lose considerable production time as well as resources in attempting to meet the inspection results of both consortiums.

The meeting was attended by the major stakeholders on the issue including the commerce minister, the commerce secretary, the labor minister, officials of  BGMEA and also the Bangladesh Knitwear and Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), International Labour Organisation (ILO) as well as two professors from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Importantly, representatives of the Accord and the Alliance were also at the meeting, including Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord and M. Rabin, managing director of the Alliance.

An official who was present at the event told WWD that although the commerce minister announced the agreement against duplication, it was clear at the meeting that the Alliance embraced and accepted the idea while it seemed a little more uncertain the other way around. “Will the Accord turn around later and say it was an announcement by the commerce minister and not from us?” he said, while acknowledging that the meeting was certainly one more step toward the right direction and describing the meeting as ‘friendly’ and geared towards resolution.

Other points that came up at the meeting remained unresolved from the local perspective — especially the debate on sprinklers that have been a matter of contention between factory owners in Bangladesh and global retailers.

According to the terms for fire safety, sprinklers are necessary in buildings that have more than six floors.

However, employers have been protesting this issue as it is not mandatory in the building codes of Bangladesh and brought up the question about the need to put sprinklers not only in floors that were higher than the sixth floor, but in ever single floor below six as well. Meanwhile, buildings that had less than six floors did not need these sprinklers in lower floors, they said.

Factory owners felt that the arguments put forward by both consortiums are not convincing on this.


Their concerns about the tiled floors at the factories and the fact that sprinklers would cause these to be slippery in the event of a fire are still raging as is the point put forward by the professors from BUET that to keep the sprinklers in working order there would be a need for a 100,000 square foot cubic reservoir. Additionally, the water in Bangladesh is iron-rich and would block the sprinklers if it remained unused for a period of several months.

BGMEA officials said the clarity about issues related to inspections was becoming more urgent as more than 600 factory inspections have been completed at this time. There are an approximate 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh.

The issue about compensation for factories that are required to be shut down for improving their safety conditions was part of the discussion once again. Although the global consortiums have suggested that the company would be eligible for a low interest loan from a bank and the IFC, employers reacted by observing that systems in Bangladesh moved far more slowly than in the West and loan applications sometimes took as long as six months to process. The fixing of the factory could take another few months, missing  targets set by the global retailers, they said, describing the need to take into consideration the local systems and how they come into play.

RELATED STORY: Challenges Remain for Bangladesh Safety Initiatives >>