DHAKA (Reuters) - In the weeks since the Rana Plaza collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, at least five different Bangladesh agencies have sent teams to begin inspecting the estimated 5,600 factories that make up the nation's $20 billion garment industry.
But there's little coordination between the agencies, and senior government officials are unable to say just how many factories have been checked. Estimates vary from just 60 to 340.
While U.S. and European retailers which buy the bulk of Bangladesh-made clothing had hoped to complete factory inspections within 9-12 months, inspectors and government officials say this will take at least 5 years.
Bangladesh has fewer than 200 qualified inspectors.
The disconnect among the various agencies conducting what are often cursory visual assessments - Bangladesh has nowhere near enough technical equipment for sophisticated inspections - means some garment factories have been visited several times, while others have had no checks at all.
"It's a big nuisance for us, and while we're being put through this, nobody's checking all the other factories in the vicinity that haven't had a single inspection," said Emdadul Islam, a director of Babylon Garments, which supplies Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), Tesco Plc (TSCO.L) and Hennes & Mauritz AB's (HMb.ST) H&M stores. "Our managers are focusing on entertaining inspectors instead of their work because none of these teams are speaking to each other."
Babylon has passed six safety inspections this year. Islam showed Reuters certificates from Bureau Veritas, the firm Wal-Mart has hired to inspect suppliers, and Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA), which inspects Tesco factories. Others to have carried out checks include the Bangladesh textiles ministry and the national garment association, whose 4-person inspection crew spent 3 hours hunting for cracks that could indicate structural flaws like those at Rana Plaza - an illegally built tower where safety warnings were ignored.
A Reuters reporter followed teams of local inspectors touring more than half a dozen factories in and around the capital Dhaka this month, and spoke to factory owners, government officials and engineers to gauge progress in attempts to assure the safety of the garment industry's buildings.
During a surprise safety check at Miami Garments, a worker unearthed a fire extinguisher from beneath a pile of shirts to show a government inspector. It was the only one in the 15,000 square foot, 4-storey factory. The building code requires one extinguisher per 550 square feet.
Inspector Abdul Latif Helaly and two colleagues from Dhaka's Capital Development Authority, responsible for urban development, noted it on a list of observations about the factory, which is in a residential building - another building code violation. There was just a single narrow exit staircase, weak floors and structural columns insufficient to support the factory's load, the inspectors found.
"This is a relatively compliant factory and no action needs to be taken here," Helaly said after the 30-minute visual inspection, made without the use of any tools. "We have asked the owners to move their factory to a new building soon and they have agreed to do it in the next 1-2 years."
After signing the factory's clean bill of health, the inspectors were each handed two shirts by the owners.
Bangladesh pledged to boost worker rights and recruit more safety inspectors after the European Union, which gives preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, threatened punitive measures. Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama cut off trade benefits for Bangladesh in a mostly symbolic response to conditions in the garment industry.
Bangladesh's garment exports rose 16 percent in June, showing that retailers have not turned away since the Rana Plaza tragedy.
A group of 80 mostly European retailers who signed an accord to carry out coordinated inspections in Bangladesh have started hiring and training inspectors on their own to check the around 1,000 factories that supply their brands.
"This whole process is painstakingly slow," said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the Switzerland-based IndustriALL union that is overseeing the plan. He said the group would complete only initial safety checks within 9 months, and will take around 5 years to make repairs, conduct final inspections and declare all factories safe.
North American retailers like Wal-Mart and GAP (GPS.N) formed their own alliance and are confident of fully checking the 500 factories that supply their members by July 2014. They are hiring third-party agencies to inspect factories and not re-inspect those that have already been passed fit, said Nate Herman, vice president for international trade at the American Apparel and Footwear Association, which is part of the alliance. He said the inspections would begin from November.
At a building safety conference in Dhaka earlier this month, government agencies, the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), reached no agreement on how to coordinate safety checks.
Reuters spoke to five officials who attended the meeting and found they had overlapped inspecting some factories and not shared their findings.
"We have to independently verify the buildings and anyway the association cannot be held responsible for the lack of co-ordination. The government needs to look at it," said Shamsul Haque, the BGMEA's additional secretary.
The BGMEA, which has 10 inspectors, said it has checked 400 factories and shut 20 of them. The plan is to complete visual inspections of all 2,500 member factories by December - an ambitious average of 12 inspections a day based on teams of 3-4 inspectors taking at least 3 hours to finish each check.
Results of initial visual inspections that raise a red flag are passed on to BUET, the country's premier engineering university, for closer scrutiny.
While BUET has the expertise to carry out structural inspections, it lacks both the manpower and the gear.
"We need more sophisticated equipment and if we double our staff strength from 30 we can aim to finish a thorough preliminary assessment on all factories in 18 months," said Mohammad Mujibur Rahman, head of the university's civil engineering department - which is in talks with the government for permission to hire more people.
On a recent tour of the Bengal Indigo factory, cracks on the walls had been covered with fresh paint and plaster before BUET Professors Mehedi Ahmed Ansary and Raquib Ahsan arrived. "It looks like the owners have tried to cover the cracks, but it's still visible," said Ahsan, who like other professors conducts inspections in addition to his full-time teaching job.
The two professors raised concerns about the weight of machines and clothing on the top floor, and noted the building deviated from design blueprints. They asked the company to submit to a voluntary secondary assessment, which will take more than two months as engineers check the plant's column strength and study steel, concrete and cement samples.
Full inspections on all factories will take up to 7 years, and plans for that are being discussed with the government and the International Labour Organisation, said BUET's Rahman.
"The post-collapse impetus to inspect factories has slowed and it's definitely proving to be a challenge to make sure this whole effort doesn't fizzle out," he said.
Editing by Emily Kaiser and Ian Geoghegan