Bangladesh Accord Orders Emergency Closure at Factory Making University Goods

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:April 15, 2014
Re:Bangladesh Accord Orders Emergency Closure at Factory Making University Goods

On April 9, 2014, the Chief Inspector of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh ordered the evacuation and temporary closure of a factory building operated by Libas Textiles, a producer of university logo goods for the licensee Glitter Gear. The Accord’s structural engineers conducted an inspection of the facility, which performs knitting and printing functions for Libas Textiles, and concluded that the building’ columns were grossly inadequate in size and strength to support the structure. (This is the same defect that caused the catastrophic Rana Plaza building collapse last April.) In addition to their technical analysis, the engineers reported that physical vibrations of the structure could be felt during the normal course of work, an extremely worrisome phenomenon. The building normally houses several hundred workers.

Consistent with their obligations under the Accord, when the Chief Inspector determined that the factory building was in danger of structural failure, the brands that use the factory and are signatories to the Accord, including H&M, instructed factory management to close the facility immediately – pending further assessment and renovations to make the building safe.

The Accord requires that factories continue to pay wages to workers during a temporary closure. In this case, because Libas Textiles operates other sizable production buildings on the same site, it was possible to reassign the employees from the unsafe building to perform work in other buildings, thus ensuring the continuation of their wages and employment relationship.

A more detailed “deep dive” structural assessment of the building will now be conducted by the Accord, in order to determine whether the building can be made structurally sound and, if so, what specific measures are necessary.

The Accord signatory brands that use the factory are obligated to ensure that the owner has sufficient financial resources to weather the disruption in production and to afford the necessary repairs.

Libas Textiles is one of nine factory buildings that the Accord has ordered evacuated to date. This is out of roughly 200 facilities where structural inspections have so far been conducted (1,800 buildings in total are slated to be assessed). In all of these cases, the structural engineers and the Chief Inspector determined that there was a danger of structural collapse, due to inadequate column strength. (In some cases, it has been possible to allow limited production to continue in a building, because partial closure removed sufficient weight to eliminate the chance of structural failure.)

Less severe structural deficiencies have also been identified in many other buildings beyond these nine, with corrective actions necessary, but these deficiencies are not of a magnitude requiring immediate evacuation. 

There is no function of the Accord more significant than identifying unsound factory structures and evacuating the employees who are working every day in those dangerous buildings. The Accord was created, first and foremost, to prevent another catastrophe like the Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed 1,137 workers. It is deeply heartening to see the Accord now performing this function and removing thousands of workers from buildings were a collapse could occur. In total, more than 12,500 workers are employed in the buildings where production has been totally or partially suspended by the Accord. Prior to these shutdowns, all of these workers were at serious risk.

Glitter Gear has declined to sign the Accord. The reason that Libas Textiles is nonetheless covered by the Accord is that other Accord signatories, which are not university licensees, produce at the facility. There are, however, other factories producing for licensees that have not signed the Accord and in some cases there is no Accord brand using the factory, leaving the facility outside the Accord’s scope.

It is important to note in this regard that the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has not announced the closure of any factories due to structural weakness. This is despite the fact that the Alliance, which includes companies like Walmart and VF Corporation, claims to have inspected more than 360 factories. There is a private report of a brief suspension of production at one Alliance factory, but it is unconfirmed. Since it is widely recognized that there are numerous unsafe factory structures in the Bangladesh garment sector, the Alliance’s inaction is cause for serious concern. If the Alliance were identifying and evacuating unsafe structures at the same rate as the Accord, it would have already closed 15 to 20 buildings.

We expect that at some point the Alliance will take action at some factories; to fail to do so would destroy entirely the credibility of the program. However, the fact that the Alliance reported completing inspections of nearly half of all covered factories, yet did not report closing any unsafe facilities, is a strong indicator of a lack of rigor in the Alliance inspection program. Given its track record to date, we see a grave risk that the Alliance will allow some grossly unsafe factories to continue to operate.

It must also be noted that two of the factories the Accord has evacuated had previously undergone structural inspections directed by individual brands. In both cases, the brands’ engineers either failed to detect the gross structural deficiencies the Accord later uncovered or did detect these deficiencies but then failed to take proper action.

This is highly significant. Since the Rana Plaza collapse, some brands and retailers have carried out their own structural inspections – a departure from prior years, when only “social audits” were utilized, which purported to cover worker safety, but in fact ignored such vital issues as structural soundness and the adequacy of fire exits. Despite the fact that these more recent brand inspections are focused on the correct issues, these inspections are not independent, do not involve any public transparency, and are not backed up by any obligation on the part of the brand to act on whatever findings may be reached. Whatever the qualifications of the engineers (and these vary), the WRC does not consider such brand-led inspections to be an adequate mechanism for ensuring the safety of workers. This is why we have urged brands and retailers, including university licensees, to sign the Accord – a program which includes all of the essential features (independence, transparency, and a binding commitment to act on findings) that these brand-controlled inspections lack. The fact that brand-led inspections have failed to detect hazards so severe that they later necessitated the urgent evacuation of building occupants is a strong indicator that brands cannot be relied upon, acting on their own, to take sufficient measures to ensure the safety of workers.

The university community has heard, and will continue to hear, some apparel companies claim that they have everything under control and can be trusted to ensure that their contract factories are safe for workers. The university community has heard, and will continue to hear, this same claim from Alliance member brands. It is important to bear in mind that many of these claims are being made by the very companies whose prior neglect of building safety contributed to the long series of deadly disasters that has plagued Bangladeshi apparel workers. Now these companies tell us that we should have faith in their ability to protect workers in Bangladesh – even though they have made no binding commitments to worker representatives, have provided no meaningful transparency, and will not subject their factories to genuinely independent inspections. The experience of recent weeks in Bangladesh underscores how vital it is to treat such claims with appropriate skepticism.

Please click this link for an example of local media coverage of the Accord-ordered evacuations, from Bangladesh’s English-language Financial Express.

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]