Demands for safer factories behind thousands of job losses in Bangladesh

Clampdown by Western retailers after disaster causes textile plants to close

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Thousands of textiles workers in Bangladesh have been sacked after two factories making clothes for high streets across the world were partially closed over safety fears.

The shutdowns came as a direct result of  the first round of inspections carried out under new rules agreed by Western retailers, including nearly all the main UK operators, following the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex which left more than 1,100 garment workers dead.

Campaigners said the decision to shut down the factories, due to a host of failings including overloaded floors, poor  wiring, locked fire exits and a lack of fire doors, showed that the agreed programme of safety inspections at garment factories in the country was working.

However, one called Softex, which supplies the French supermarket chain Auchan, immediately sacked 3,500 staff, declaring it “risky to continue operations”.

The neighbouring factory, Fame Knitting, closed temporarily last week. As with those at Softex, its 2,500 workers were not compensated.

Softex’s chief executive, Rezwan Selim, said: “I know what has happened to the workers is unfair. But the inspectors told me that the building has serious structural problems and asked us to evacuate the floors.”

He claimed he was “desperately trying” to pay three months’ wages to the Dhaka workers.

Unions condemned the two companies for not compensating staff, but the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said  it was up to Western retailers to pay. “We’re closing down plants as part of their suggestions,” argued the organisation’s vice-president, Shahidullah Azim.

About 70 international retailers have signed the Bangladesh Accord.

Organisers have conducted in-depth inspections at 10 factories in Bangladesh and hope to carry out another 1,500 by August. Inspectors found that the most serious concerns were  where factory floors were loaded with too much machinery and stock, stressing some supporting beams and threatening the entire structure.

Alan Roberts, the Bangladesh Accord Foundation’s director of international operations, said each factory is given two weeks’ notice ahead of any inspection, so that owners felt they were working with the authorities rather than against them.

He said: “We are not trying to catch people out but create safer futures. We think creating the right kind of relationship is key.”

He also refused to say which brands were being made in the two factories but said all companies signed up to the accord were taking their responsibilities seriously.

Reports from the inspections of the first 10 factories found that most did not have proper structural maps of each building, some had only rudimentary fire alarms and some had no internal fire doors.

The Accord was created last year following the collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza in Dhaka, where clothes for Primark and Walmart were being made.