Dhaka—In the early morning, crowds of women in bright salwar kameez move like a colorful wave through the streets of Dhaka. They are garment workers on their way to the morning shift at thousands of factories. They are also an important force driving Bangladesh’s economic engine. But this critical industry that employs more than 4 million people—80 percent of them women—is struggling to make sweeping changes.
Two years ago, on April 24, 2013, the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in Dhaka killed 1,100 workers in the world’s worst garment-factory disaster. Low-paid garment workers were crushed and maimed beneath concrete and steel in a catastrophe that shocked and outraged the world. The tragedy sparked a global demand for international clothing companies, factory owners, and Bangladesh’s government to improve poor safety standards in the world’s second-largest exporter of garments.
Now the difficult phase of fixing the problems is under way. More than 2,700 garment factories in Bangladesh have been inspected so far (as of this March 22, 32 of them had been closed because of imminent risk). Eventually some 3,500 export factories must meet international standards; otherwise, they cannot work with big international buyers and, in theory, should be barred from exporting.
Progress on upgrading factories varies widely. Ones with resources are investing heavily in strengthening concrete columns, installing imported fire-safety equipment such as fire doors and hydrant systems, upgrading electrical wiring, and training workers. At the other extreme are factories that are evading inspectors and ignoring calls to upgrade. Some owners are struggling to pay for the improvements and say they need low-interest loans.
Garment workers at Alif Embroidery Village in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka. Alif is heavily investing in upgrading its facilities.
Two international groups, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, are overseeing remediation of more than 2,000 factories after finishing inspections in recent months. Together, the groups represent more than 200 of the largest US and European clothing buyers, including H&M, Walmart, Zara, and the Gap.
About 1,400 factories not covered by the Accord and Alliance fall under a third initiative, the National Tripartite Plan for Fire and Structural Integrity, backed by the Bangladeshi government, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and other groups. The National Tripartite Plan is about halfway through its inspections; some of its remaining factories are resisting or evading inspections.