The devastating earthquake in Nepal and surrounding countries forced the closure of three garment factories in Bangladesh last week, affecting thousands of workers and prompting brand and retailer groups to begin reinspecting high-risk structures.

A series of strong tremors from the Nepal earthquake also struck Bangladesh, hitting the country at a time when the global fashion industry has been making strides in conducting inspections in thousands of garment factories, training thousands of workers and shoring up unsafe buildings.

The two consortia of brands, retailers and unions formed nearly two years ago in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, immediately mobilized after the earthquake and are now conducting post-earthquake inspections of a designated number of factories.

The post-earthquake assessments came as officials from the U.S. and Bangladesh wrapped up a two-day conference in Dhaka aimed at building a stronger partnership to help bolster Bangladesh’s garment industry and help improve worker safety and labor rights.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which represents 28 brands and retailers, including Target Corp., VF Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc., and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a consortium of unions and 190 European and North American retailers and brands, including IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union, Inditex, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Primark and C&A, said they received phone calls from panicked workers and factory management in Bangladesh, during and after the earthquake, and quickly began assessing potential damage.

Ian Spaulding, adviser to the Alliance, whose members currently source from about 650 factories in Bangladesh, said it received calls from people at 52 factories after the earthquake, reporting concerns and, in some cases, damage.

He said the Alliance team analyzed and combined data it received in those calls with existing information on 19 factories that had been deemed high-risk in the Alliance’s initial round of inspections last year, and ultimately identified 24 high-risk factories that needed immediate attention.

Spaulding said teams of engineers were sent out and assessed all of those factories in Dhaka and Chittagong within 48 hours, using earthquake guidelines issued by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Alliance recommended to the Bangladesh government that three factories be immediately shut down, which impacted some 5,400 workers.

After a government review, one of the factories was allowed to reopen but two remain closed, Spaulding said.

One of the three factories has committed to giving workers full compensation, and the Alliance will work with the other two factories to ensure compensation is provided to all affected workers, he said.

Spaulding credited worker hotlines that have been installed in some 300 factories for helping provide critical information to the Alliance.

“We’re proud collectively that our systems worked,” Spaulding said. “It just reinforces that we need to do more of this, in terms of rolling out the help line further [to a remaining 350 factories]. In addition, we have to make changes to our fire-safety training to ensure earthquake preparedness is part of it. And then we also need to make sure factory management knows how to react when there is an emergency like this.”

Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord, the second major group that sources from 1,550 to 1,600 factories in Bangladesh, said it is sending staff structural engineers back to about 200 factories deemed the most vulnerable from previous inspections for new post-earthquake inspections.

He also noted that the Accord has contacted another 400 to 450 factories that were found to need follow-up “Detailed Engineering Assessments” when they went through their first round of inspections last year. The Alliance advised the factory owners that they need to have the engineering firms they hired also conduct post-earthquake inspections.

In addition, the Accord has contacted all of its member brands and retailers and requested any information they have from factory owners or workers. The Accord has also formally contacted 14 union federations affiliated with IndustriALL, seeking any information on issues and concerns raised by workers and reminding them to tell workers they have the right to refuse work if they fear their lives are in danger.

Wayss said the staff of 11 full-time structural engineers can inspect two factories a day.

“It is my understanding that we have not closed any factories,” he said, noting that several factories closed temporarily immediately after the earthquake on April 25, and sent panicked workers home, but all have since resumed operations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Bangladesh finished two days of high-level government talks in Dhaka on Friday, aimed at developing ways for the two countries to work together to advance common goals in development, trade, security, and regional integration.

Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs at the U.S. State Department, stressed the importance of collaboration between unions, the industry and government to improve workers’ rights and expressed support for Bangladesh’s goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2021.

She said that the U.S. was “actively partnering with Bangladesh and investing resources to make it a reality” and that Bangladesh’s “thriving garment sector would be the engine that drives that growth and helps Bangladesh reach that goal.

“The garment sector can help lift millions more Bangladeshis out of extreme poverty and, as it moves up the value chain, can bring many billions more dollars into Bangladesh’s economy,” she said. “As part of our commitment to help build a strong ‘Brand Bangladesh’ that is respected worldwide, we are working with the government, brands, factory owners and unions to help build respect for workers’ safety and labor rights here,” Sherman noted in her remarks at the two-day dialogue.

Noting that the United States is Bangladesh’s largest single-country importer of garments, Sherman said that the garment industry in Bangladesh had made considerable progress over the last two years, including the registration of more than 250 new unions, the creation of a public online database of factories and the training of more than 100 new labor inspectors, among many other accomplishments.

She also pointed to a $5 million program for supporting factory and community organizing, and raised the issue of better handling for labor issues.

“We also look forward to working with the Ministry of Labor to develop a mechanism to deal with unfair labor practices in a just and timely manner,” she said.

“Much still remains to be done: union organizers and leaders still face harassment and even physical violence,” Sherman noted. “Their work is important to ensuring the sustainability of Bangladesh’s garment sector, so we hope that industry and government can work together to end these tactics of intimidation. Through our own experience in labor relations, we’ve learned that empowered workers are a force for good.”

Support for the garment sector was further strengthened last Friday, as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled a three-year Worker Empowerment Program in Bangladesh to support labor rights, union organizing and women’s empowerment in the ready-made garment sector.

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