Bangladesh's clothing and textile industry is struggling to meet safety requirements as factory inspections by North American and European retail groups gather pace.

The inspections are being encouraged by international safety initiatives such as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The five-year Accord is a legally binding agreement to improve factory safety signed by 150 retailers, Bangladeshi unions and international labour groups. The Alliance involves 26 North American companies, sourcing from 700 Bangladesh factories, employing roughly 1.28m workers.

The groups were formed last year in response to a string of recent accidents, including the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013 and the November 2012 fire at Tazreen Fashion in Dhaka.

Also, Bangladesh and representatives of Bangladesh employers' and workers' organisations have signed a National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity (NTPA) for the country's garment sector.

Difficulties and disagreements
But despite these initiatives, financing difficulties and disagreements over how Bangladesh factory safety standards should be applied have threatened to slow factory upgrades in a crucial sector that employs around four million workers, 80% of them female.

An example of a particularly problematic issue is the proposed installation of fire sprinkler systems in buildings higher than 23 metres. They are demanded by standards agreed by the Alliance, Accord and the NTPA - ut are not required by standard national Bangladesh safety laws.

And some executives say they could actually cause more accidents if they were activated by a fire. "We're not living in the US or Europe, where floors are covered with carpet. If we install sprinklers in buildings, drops of water will soak largely tile-fitted factory floors causing more accidents," the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Md Atiqul Islam told just-style.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that 15% of Bangladesh garments units could require the installation of fire sprinkler systems.

Financing difficulties compound these problems. "Buyers have made it clear that they'll not place orders unless we implement corrective measures," the head of the BGMEA said. But these cost money and to afford them, the manufacturers need orders.

As a result, garment makers have beefed up efforts to request special budget aid from the government and duty waivers for fire-fighting and building safety equipment.

Islam urged the government to lift an existing tariff on fire and building safety equipment, which is as high as 61%. "The government should withdraw duties on the imports of safety equipment," he said.

He said that industry leaders had been lobbying the country's finance minister Abul Maal A Muhith for the government to create special budget allocations to help the industry deal with these financial pressures.

Help for manufacturers
Mohammad Hatem, vice president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, however has urged retail brands to help manufacturers build new premises, maybe through soft loans, work which might take two-three years.

"You get the money back through placing orders to these factories," he told just-style, with some manufacturer profits being returned to the brands as loan repayments.

Meanwhile, the Alliance and Accord have been hiring local expertise to help undertake inspections of existing plants.

The Accord has agreed to employ 25 local engineers while the Alliance has hired seven Bangladesh firms to help undertake factory inspections.

They are working with international experts, something that has been welcomed by Roy Ramesh Chandra, general secretary of the IndustriAll union in Bangladesh, who said a blend of national and international expertise was needed to make the inspections "credible."

Mikail Shipar, the senior official (secretary) at Bangladesh's ministry of labour and employment, said that a common standard for factory inspections has been developed in consultation with owners, retail groups and labour unions.

"The buyers are happy with the inspections...so far, we've received no complaints from them [supporters of the Alliance and the Accord]," said Shipar, who also chairs a tripartite body managing an action plan on fire safety and structural integrity.

Reaction from Bangladesh trade unions remains cautious. Roy Ramesh Chandra views the initiatives as a "golden opportunity" for cleaning up the Bangladesh garment sector, but noted that no-one should expect "change will happen overnight. It's a gradual process."

And he said pay, conditions and labour rights need to be respected. "There's no room for overlooking workers' rights, because international concerns must be addressed if one wants to do business in the global market," he told just-style.

Export powerhouse
While the recent events have dented Bangladesh's image as a garment export powerhouse, global management consultancy McKinsey still predicts that the country will grow in importance as an outsourcer over the next five years.

Dr Achim Berg, a partner with McKinsey, told just-style that research suggests buyers still plan to boost sourcing from Bangladesh through 2020, even if fire and building safety have replaced infrastructure as their number one concern.

And while buyers are looking at sub-Saharan Africa and new Asian locations, including Burma/Myanmar, as alternatives, he said no solid alternatives are in sight.

"It is unlikely that promising alternative sourcing destinations would be able to take on any sizeable share of the export market within the next five years," Berg said.

And the latest official statistics reinforce his views. Bangladesh's ready-made garment shipments surged by around 18% to US$14.17bn in the seven months to January of the current fiscal year.

Bangladesh is now the world's second biggest apparel exporter after China.

Clothing exports earned the country US$21.5bn last year, making up 80% of the south Asian country's total merchandise shipments of US$27bn.

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