New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 3, 2013
DHAKA, Bangladesh >> Not even two months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building claimed more than 1,100 lives, a team of engineers arrived to assess another factory in the center of the capital. It was named Al-Hamra Garments, and it was one of hundreds of factories undergoing post-disaster inspections as Bangladesh sought to prove that its critical apparel industry was safe.
But this inspection, conducted in mid-June, was startling. The two engineers discovered that the eight-story factory was partly propped up by temporary cast-iron pillars placed on the ground floor.
Several original beams and columns were cracked or disintegrating. And the factory was open for business, with more than 1,000 workers producing clothing for a Bangladeshi apparel conglomerate whose customers include Wal-Mart and Gap.
“Considering the severity of the building condition it is recommended that the use of the building be discontinued immediately,” the two inspectors, professors at the country’s top engineering college, concluded in their preliminary assessment report.
Yet last Saturday, nearly two weeks after the inspection, Al-Hamra Garments was still open. “The factory is fine,” said an administrator, Shafiul Azam Chowdhury, on Saturday afternoon. He said two other inspection teams had concluded that the temporary propping made the building safe enough to continue operations during structural repairs.
“No problem,” he added in a telephone interview.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, now the world’s second-leading clothing exporter, after China’s, is still struggling to recover from the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. To address concerns about unsafe buildings, government officials and industry leaders called for inspections to ensure the structural integrity of the country’s 5,000 garment factories.
But two months after the collapse, the inspections process is disorganized and haphazard, with unclear lines of authority. The Ministry of Textiles is overseeing some inspections. An industry trade group is organizing others. The local development authority in Dhaka is involved, and the country’s top engineering school is playing a central role. Some global brands have also sent inspection teams.
The situation at Al-Hamra Garments underscores the confusion. On Saturday, after a reporter for The New York Times visited the ground floor of the factory and began making inquiries, factory officials and the building’s owner initially defended the decision to remain open. But late that night, company officials reversed course. The next morning, they closed the factory.
“We reviewed all the reports, and our managing director decided to close it,” Chowdhury said in a later telephone interview. “We were in a dilemma about what was to be done.”
It was unclear what clothing was being made inside Al-Hamra Garments but the factory is owned by one of Bangladesh’s leading apparel conglomerates, the Palmal Group, which has at least 23 factories and has been praised by Gap and Wal-Mart as a top supplier, according to the company’s website.
Inspecting Bangladesh’s garment factories is an acutely complicated task. No government agency is certain of precisely how many such factories operate in Bangladesh, or where they are located. Some inspectors are discovering that building plans filed with government agencies do not always match the actual buildings. Many factories built during the 1980s and 1990s have no architectural drawings at all.
Critics often blame this lack of regulation on Dhaka’s development authority, known as Rajuk. Last week, the authority’s director told members of Bangladesh’s Parliament that roughly 8,000 buildings in Dhaka, the national capital, lacked required approvals or violated construction codes. In a later interview, the authority’s chief engineer blamed part of the problem on manpower: Rajuk has only 40 inspectors to oversee 1 million structures in Dhaka.
“Impossible,” said the chief engineer, Mohammed Emdadul Islam, noting that plans to expand to 240 inspectors are still not sufficient.
Following the Rana Plaza disaster, there was a rush to inspect factories. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a leading industry trade group, quickly hired a staff of 10 engineers and announced that 19 factories had been closed during inspections.
But the inspection process quickly took on an ad hoc quality. One factory executive complained of submitting to inspections from five different entities. Most factories have not yet been inspected at all.
Some brands have sent their own inspection teams, including Tesco, the British retailer, which stopped placing orders at one local garment maker, Liberty Fashions, after the chain’s inspectors found structural problems in the factory - a finding angrily disputed by the factory’s Bangladeshi owner.
Meanwhile, reports in the Bangladeshi media about cracks in various factories have fueled fear and anger among workers. Last week, hundreds of people demonstrated in the industrial suburb of Savar after local officials closed their building, Razzak Plaza, in response to a local television report about cracks in the structure’s rooftop canteen.
“This is false news!” shouted several shopkeepers, furious at losing business.
The crowd blocked the main road and grew increasingly agitated as a local official pleaded for patience. The scene was unfolding less than a mile from the site of Rana Plaza.
“Do we want another Rana Plaza disaster?” the local official shouted.
To lead the inspections effort, the Bangladesh government, as well as industry leaders, are leaning on a small group of professors at the country’s leading engineering program, the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Yet the school has only 30 professors who are experts in structural and geophysical engineering, meaning the inspections process is moving slowly, especially since the professors must continue with their teaching loads.
Mohammed Mujibur Rahman, chairman of the civil engineering department, said that the university’s inspection teams had so far assessed about 100 buildings, including 66 containing one or more garment factories. Dhaka is estimated to have between 1,500 and 2,000 garment factories.
“It is ultimately the government that should ensure the buildings are safe,” Rahman said, noting that the university, “as an institution, doesn’t have that capacity.”
Still, Rahman said his staff considered the inspections its duty and was working around the clock.
He declined to identify which factories his teams had inspected but said defects were widespread, ranging from superficial cracks to more serious damage to columns and beams.
Inspection teams recommended that two buildings be closed because of risk of collapse. The Times later independently confirmed that the Al-Hamra Garments building was one of them and obtained a copy of the inspection report from a third party.
The building, located in the crowded center of Dhaka, went up about 20 years ago. It is divided into two sections: a five-story wing that contains two cinemas and an eight-story building that houses Al-Hamra and another factory, Amazan Garments, also owned by the Palmal Group.
In response to the Rana Plaza collapse, officials at Palmal say, the company hired a leading local engineering firm, Shaheedullah and New Associates Ltd., to inspect all its factories. When problems were discovered at the Al-Hamra site, the Shaheedullah firm determined that the columns supporting about a third of the factory needed reinforcement. The firm then installed the temporary iron props and commenced with repairs.
“Now the above garments factory is safe from immediate collapse under all vertical loads,” the firm stated in a report provided to Al-Hamra officials.
On the same day, the Bangladesh garment trade group also sent an inspection team, which surveyed the temporary support beams and concluded that the building was “safe for garment operations” as the structural repairs continued.
But the two-person team from the engineering university made a visual inspection and drew a starkly different conclusion. It found a “large number” of “severely disintegrated” columns. Other columns or beams had serious cracks. It also found design problems, reporting that in some areas, “framing with beams and columns were absent.”
“The structure of the building needs immediate measures to counter the possible total failure and total collapse of the building,” the university inspection report stated.
Asked about these findings, the building’s owner, Shafi Bikrampuri, initially argued that the three inspection reports were consistent. “They said it was not dangerous,” he said, indicating he was not aware of the details of the university report. “No danger, nothing.” By Saturday night, though, Bikrampuri and officials at Al-Hamra Garments had changed their minds. “Because of the conflicting reports and opinions from the multiple organizations involved,” Chowdhury said in a statement, “we were at a dilemma to reach an educated decision.”On Sunday morning, the factory was closed, with a notice telling workers that wages would still be paid. The company has hired yet another inspection team to conduct a comprehensive assessment.