SAVAR, Bangladesh — The walls of the cavernous AKH clothing factory are covered in red arrows. They point to three wide emergency staircases with evacuation plans posted on every floor. They point to fire extinguishers attached to the walls and pillars throughout the factory. They point to medical kits located near designated workers with “First Aid” stitched onto their shirts.
It is the type of factory garment manufacturers hope will persuade Western brands to keep making clothes in Bangladesh despite a recent factory fire and a building collapse that killed more than 1,200 people.
But just down the road, the seamier side of the industry lives on in a tiny, stiflingly hot factory. Very young looking seamstresses sew snowsuits for export at cramped work stations. The aisles are blocked by piles of clothing. Power cords hang haphazardly along the walls.
This is the type of factory the government and the major garment manufacturers have decided must reform or die if the nation’s $20 billion-a-year garment export industry is to continue to thrive.
“We have A grade [factories] and we also have D grade,” said Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “Now is the time for survival of the fittest.”
The Dhaka industrial suburb of Savar shows both sides of an industry that began just three decades ago with some sewing machines in entrepreneurs’ homes and has since exploded into a global clothing manufacturing hub.
Some buildings appear ultra-modern, with outdoor fire staircases and mirrored windows. Others have bars on all the windows and gray, raw concrete exteriors that no one has bothered to paint. Many have steel reinforcing bars jutting from the rooftops, awaiting new floors yet to be added.
A government investigation blamed the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, which killed 1,129 people, on its poor construction, floors that were illegally added to the building and the use of heavy equipment it was never designed to hold. Investigators said the November fire at the Tazreen factory, which killed 112, was so deadly in part because clothing was stored in the stairwell, which turned the emergency exit into a chimney billowing smoke, fire and toxic fumes from the burning fibers.
Many Western brands said they were not aware their clothes were being made at the factories because of the tangle of subcontracting deals that are routine in the garment business here. Following the twin tragedies, some brands pledged to help raise safety standards. Others, most prominently Disney, announced they were pulling out completely.
The government and the manufacturers association are taking a carrot-and-stick approach toward reforms aimed at preventing another disaster that could cause more companies to follow Disney’s lead.
One target is the estimated 600 factories that perform subcontracting work for export, but don’t belong to the BGMEA—freeing them from even minimal industry oversight. The organization issued a set of guidelines this month aimed at either bringing those factories into the fold, or crushing them.
The new rules mandate that factories being given subcontracts be members of the BGMEA or a related organization for knitting factories. They need to have insurance coverage for their workers. And the company that placed the initial order has to agree in advance to have it subcontracted, eliminating confusion over where its clothing is made. Those who fail to abide by the new rules can be suspended from the organization, effectively barring them from importing fabric and exporting clothes, said the BGMEA’s Azim.
The organization has also inspected 200 factories it believed were at risk and shut 20 of them, he said.
The government announced plans for a special economic zone on 532 acres near the capital, where factories located in unsafe buildings will be relocated into modern facilities with the help of cheap loans, Textiles Minister Abdul Latif Siddique said. The government has also proposed hiring hundreds of new fire safety inspectors to beef up Dhaka’s current force—just 15 people tasked with inspecting the city’s 10,000 factories and warehouses.
Not far from the Rana Plaza site stands the spotless AKH factory.
Inside, rows of women and men worked at sewing machines separated by wide aisles in the giant airy factory, making dark blue men’s shirts for H&M on one line, khaki shirts for Marks & Spencer on another and purple shirts for Perry Ellis on a third. Boxes of finished shirts were stacked neatly nearby.
A man using an industrial saw to cut stacks of fabric into shirt panels wore a chain mail glove on one hand for protection. Shears were tied to tables and irons strapped to overhead pipes to ensure they wouldn’t fall and pierce or burn workers’ feet.
In addition to the ubiquitous fire extinguishers, the 5,500-person factory had firefighting masks, helmets, shovels and buckets of sand on each floor.
Faridul Alam, a top official at the factory, said it had four fire hoses and a 40,000-liter tank to feed them. The building was constructed to withstand an 8.5 magnitude earthquake, and the generators were housed in a separate facility to ensure that their vibrations don’t damage the structure, he said.
The measures, Alam said, pay off because they attract safety-conscious Western brands. But even AKH subcontracts to other factories when production lines are backed up, he said. He refused to give details about those deals.
A few kilometers away, a small factory above some shops in a market revealed the hidden, bottom layer of the industry.
Women and children who appeared to be in their early teens at best hunched over sewing machines making puffy green camouflage snowsuits with the Kidz Grow System label and dark blue snowsuits labeled Piazza Italia Man. They appeared somewhat frightened of the young men who rapidly passed the clothing they had finished sewing to the next machine in the assembly line.
There were fire extinguishers on the walls but vast bundles everywhere—in the aisles, near the exits—of raw materials, half-finished clothing, discarded fabric scraps and finished garments. Tangles of electric wiring hung haphazardly throughout the facility. Several boxes of clothing and a huge sack of insulation used in the snowsuits sat in a stairwell.
It is unclear whether the factory got its orders directly from brands, from a buying house that places orders on behalf of Western companies, or from an overburdened factory that needed a subcontractor. Factory officials declined to speak to The Associated Press.
Cleburne, Texas-based Walls, which owns the Kidz Grow System clothing line, said it was checking into how its clothing ended up at that factory.
“If it’s going through an agent, then typically we might not know about that factory,” said Walls Chief Financial Officer Bill Aisenberg.
Milan-based Piazza Italia did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.
The government plans to crack down on smaller subcontracting factories, but it will take time, said Siddique, the textiles minister. First, it is focused on fixing larger factories.
“We are taking this very seriously,” he said.
But it can be difficult to shut down factories, even those with obvious safety issues, said Sheikh Mizanur Rahman, a deputy director of Dhaka’s fire service.
Before shutting a dangerous factory, the fire department must first issue a letter demanding improvements. It can refuse to renew the annual fire safety certificates of factories that fail to comply. But factories can continue operating as they file appeals, first to the government and then to the courts.
“This is a long process,” Rahman said.
Since the Tazreen fire, there have been more than 40 fires in Bangladesh garment factories, killing 16 people and injuring hundreds more, according to the Solidarity Center, an international labor rights group.
Despite the new efforts at reform, government and industry officials and activists agree that another building collapse or major fire remains a real threat.
“There is every possibility that it can happen again,” said Wajed-ul Islam Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Trade Union Center.
Associated Press reporter Julhas Alam contributed to this report.