A Scary Tour of Bangladesh’s Factories

An inspector discovers cracked walls and blocked fire exits

Mehul Srivastava and Sarah Shannon

Value of apparel exports to the U.S.


In the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, which killed more than 1,000 workers, Bangladesh is trying to assess the state of its garment factories. A day spent with Mohammed Helal Ahmed, a civil engineer in the Dhaka city government, shows how arduous that job is.

The garment industry survey by Ahmed and his 50 colleagues at the Dhaka Development Authority has been hobbled by shortages of cars, engineers, money, and information. The development authority didn’t know exactly how many factories there were. After two weeks it has surveyed about 300 of more than 3,500 factories in the capital of 18 million people. Close to 90 percent of the factories visited triggered serious concerns and warranted immediate repairs or demolitions, says Emdadul Islam, chief engineer at the authority.

The surveys are supposed to be followed by thorough inspections, including tests of steel beams and concrete, and then by remedies for the problems uncovered. For now, all that officials want is a database, and creating that may be all they can do. “For evaluation, we need experts,” says Tarek Uddin Mohammed, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Asia Pacific in Dhaka. “The government doesn’t have the necessary workforce.”

Before Ahmed can reach the first factory he needs to inspect on a recent day, his 18-year-old government-issued Toyota HiLux stalls. Out comes a hammer and a quart of oil. Ahmed crosses off names of factories he won’t reach today. He had wanted to visit at least seven.

Repairs made, Ahmed’s team bounces down a rutted, muddy road to a four-story building. Shops on the ground floor sell televisions and mobile phones, and a back entrance leads up to Ratul Fabrics, where about 650 workers packed into two floors make clothes for Australia’s Kmart discount department store, a unit of Wesfarmers, according to Anwarul Islam, Ratul Fabrics’ managing director.

Ahmed asks for building plans and documents naming the engineers who designed the factory and detailing soil samples. The managers hem and haw, produce some documents, and promise to send the rest. Ahmed walks past piles of green sweatshirts emblazoned with I♥NY graphics and stops under a long crack running along the east wall. He looks worried and repeats his request for the engineer’s name and firm. On the opposite wall, a long crack runs from floor to ceiling. The windows have metal grills, which means that in a fire, workers wouldn’t be able to jump to safety. Of three fire exits, two lead to indoor stairwells and one to an external metal staircase. His colleague steps on the outside staircase, and it wobbles under his weight. “Problems, problems, lots of problems,” Ahmed says as he exits the building.

Kmart stopped sourcing from Ratul Fabrics in May and evacuated workers after being informed by a government inspector that the building was unsafe, Tracie Walker, general manager of Kmart Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, writes in an e-mail. A civil engineer retained by Ratul Fabrics found that cracks in the walls were nonstructural, Walker says, and an engineer Kmart had hired concurred. Production resumed. The retailer says it had previously decided not to place more orders with Ratul Fabrics because the factory is above a marketplace. That contravenes its own recently revised ethical sourcing policy. Final orders are still being fulfilled.

The next factory, Anzir Apparels, is located on the second floor of Shamsher Plaza, a building jammed with ATMs, restaurants, cigarette shops, and clothing stores. Security guards stop Ahmed from entering the factory. Phone calls are made, ID cards brandished, voices raised. Finally, Mustafa Arif, the administrative director, lets Ahmed’s team in. Cartons of sweaters stacked 6 feet high block passageways leading to fire exits. Stairwells are half-occupied by more cartons. Arif pulls out file after file as Ahmed takes notes.

One report, by local engineering firm Ilhans Engineers, gives Ahmed pause. It says the factory’s load-bearing columns are carrying almost the maximum weight they can handle. The engineers recommend that no more than a single water tank of 3,000 liters be placed on the roof. Ahmed finds six tanks of water on the roof — three of 3,000 liters and three of 1,500 liters — about the weight of three elephants.

Down the road, at another plant owned by Anzir Apparels, Ahmed is even more concerned. As he steps around piles of sweaters, he notices cracks in major load-bearing columns. A worker grabs him and points to a recent paint job, under which a long crack is visible. A guard rushes over and tells the worker in Bengali to shut up.

As day’s end approaches, Ahmed discovers some factory construction in Dhaka was never even approved by the city. In 2010, Dhaka absorbed a suburb called Savar. Overnight, Dhaka was responsible for Savar’s factories, including Rana Plaza. Its construction was approved by Savar officials but hadn’t been inspected by Dhaka’s civil servants, according to separate interviews with Sheikh Mannan, a member of the Dhaka Development Authority’s planning committee, and Islam, the authority’s chief engineer.

Ahmed reaches a seven-story building that ended up within Dhaka’s new boundaries. It’s two adjacent apartment buildings joined at the third floor by putting in concrete slabs and removing walls. “It was designed as an apartment building, and now it’s a factory,” he says. “It’s a huge issue.” Inside, Ahmed asks for copies of the building plan: It still shows a residential design, with bedrooms and kitchens. He walks around, shaking his head. It’s time to go home. Workers gather at the grilled windows of the plant. Ahmed waves and drives off. Four factories down, 3,200 to go.

The bottom line The capital of Bangladesh has more than 3,500 garment factories. Many urgently need strict regulation and repair.


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