The North American-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which includes Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian Tire, says it has now shut down or partially closed 19 factories in the country due to safety concerns.
The Alliance, which represents 27 big brands operating in Bangladesh, was formed after the devastating Rana Plaza factory disaster, which killed nearly 1,129 people on April 24, 2013, and injured thousands more.
It began an inspection program in the 600 garment factories in which the big brands operate, looking for structural or electrical defects and fire safety concerns. The results of the inspection reports are released on the Alliance’s website.
Rana Plaza was originally constructed to be a six-storey shopping mall complex but it was later converted into multi-storey garment factories with heavy machinery loaded onto the top floors of the structurally unsound building. Bangladesh has filed charges against 17 people concerning the illegal transformation of the building.
After the collapse, the practice of fashion houses using cheap labour in dangerous buildings came under intense international scrutiny, and the pressure was on from consumers to improve conditions.
Ian Spaulding, the Alliance’s senior adviser and public spokesperson, said the most distressing discovery was buildings that do not meet safety code standards on load levels per floor.
“The worst buildings that pose the greatest risk don’t look that bad on the outside,” said Spaulding, who was in Toronto to participate in the two-day World Ethical Apparel Roundtable taking place at the Brick Works.
When the inspectors take a closer look, however, problems such as “highly stressed columns” and “cracks in beams and beam joints,” are found.
Last April, the Alliance recommended RSI Garments Ltd. in Chittagong immediately shut down due to structural problems. RSI was closed and all 340 workers were paid 50 per cent of their salary for two months, or $26,220 (U.S.) in total, according to the inspection report.
Safety concerns discovered in other buildings include lack of sprinklers and fire doors, as well as faulty wiring. The Alliance has also started a worker helpline, run by a third party, so that garment workers can anonymously report concerns.
As a result of the 19 closures or partial closures, the Alliance has compensated 2,500 garment workers while repairs take place, to the tune of $200,000 (U.S.).
The Alliance, which has agreed to operate in Bangladesh for five years, lends money to factories in order for them to carry out safety upgrades. If the building hazards aren’t fixed, the big brands will not do business with the factories.
Last September, VF Corporation — which owns the popular brands The North Face, Wrangler, Vans and Nautica — started a $10 million (U.S.) fund in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, to provide up to $10 million in financing for upgrades for Bangladesh factories.
“The loans are completely guaranteed by VF — if a factory doesn’t pay it back, VF is on the hook,” said Spaulding.
Last month, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh — a European-led group of 189 big brands that includes Primark and Loblaw — reported it had found 80,000 safety hazards in the 1,106 factories it inspected.
In 17 building inspections, the Accord inspections discovered the structural integrity of the building was below safety standards, the group said in a release.
– Tanya Talaga, TORONTO STAR