DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Escalating political unrest in Bangladesh has sharply slowed a drive to improve factory safety in the wake of a string of deadly industrial disasters, officials said today.
The world's second-largest ready-made garment exporter launched a $24-million inspection blitz in late November to fix thousands of death-trap factories after a series of accidents highlighted the industry's appalling safety record.
"We had a target to inspect 200 factories by early January," said Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, a co-ordinator of the Bangladesh inspection program, "but we have inspected only 75 garment factories."
The inspection drive was spurred by the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in April, which left at least 1,135 people dead in one of this century's worst industrial disasters.
Labour Secretary Mikail Shipar blamed the slow pace of inspections on worsening political turmoil triggered by opposition demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the scrapping of general elections slated for Jan. 5.
"The abnormal political situation has slowed down the inspection drive," Shipar said, adding that inspectors had been unable to reach larger plants in industrial areas outside Dhaka, the nation's capital.
Both Shipar and Ansary said the inspections had been held up due to disruption in transport links caused by the continuing unrest, which has virtually cut off Dhaka from the rest of the country due to blockades and strikes called by the opposition parties.
Most of Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories are based in the industrial zones outside Dhaka, which are home to factories making clothes for the world's top retailers such as Walmart, Tesco, Gap and H&M.
"If the situation continues this way, we'll miss the deadline to inspect more than 1,000 factories by August," Shipar said.
Ansary, a professor of civil engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said of the 75 factories inspected so far, all were found safe.
About 30 teams from BUET are conducting the drive based on common safety guidelines agreed on by Western retailers.
Retailers and BUET experts have developed the guidelines.
U.S. and European retailers signed up to two separate safety pacts after coming under intense pressure in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster.
The two groups will carry out inspections of more than 2,000 factories using the new standards, while the government will check about 1,500 factories not covered by the pacts.
Bangladesh's $22 billion garment industry -- the world's second largest after China's -- employs four million workers, most of them women.
Scores of people have died in clashes since late October when the opposition launched the protests calling on Hasina to resign and make way for the polls to be held under a neutral caretaker government.
This year, Bangladesh has witnessed its worst political violence since it became an independent nation in 1971. In another dispute, clashes between opposition protesters demanding a halt to war crime trials of their leaders and police have left at least 150 people dead.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013