As the five-year agreements’ end date approaches, many factories are still far from adhering to the safety measures outlined. “It’s very unlikely that all of the Accord and Alliance factories would be fully remediated by that deadline,” says Jennifer Bair, a sociologist who studies globalization at the University of Virginia. A lot of the work left to be done is significant and expensive, and while the scope of danger can vary widely from factory to factory, virtually every exporting factory in the country was found to need some sort of repair.
Dhaka in particular, which is home to many of the country’s factories, has struggled with safety because of how developed it is. “One of the things that makes Bangladesh so hazardous but unique is that you have a lot of the industry, particularly the older factories, that are located in a really densely populated urban district of Dhaka in high buildings, as opposed to low, purpose-built buildings of the sort that you might see in a lot of other countries’ export sectors,” says Bair.
Researchers working on factory and worker-safety issues in Bangladesh can generally agree on a few points: Though structural fixes have sped up, the odds that factories are fully fixed in a year are slim. They also agree that even after factories’ structural problems are fixed, that won’t solve all the threats to safety that factory workers face. But how to deal with those issues, who should be responsible, and just how much work remains are areas where some disagree.
In December of 2015, researchers from New York University’s Stern School of Business painted a fairly damning portrait of the efforts to improve garment factories in Bangladesh, which I reported on. Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, the authors of the study, found that of the 3,425 inspections that took place in Bangladesh in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, only eight factories have fixed enough of their violations to pass a final inspection, despite the fact that brands, nonprofits, and other organizations have poured more than $280 million into safety-improvement efforts. Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly estimated that the two 2013 safety initiatives still left out more than half of the country’s 5.1 million garment-factory workers.
The assertions were alarming and controversial. Many voiced their doubts about their accuracy. Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium has been a vocal critic. “We don’t need to speculate on where remediation stands because there's data available,” he told me.
Others have been even more specific. A critique written early last year by Mark Anner of Pennsylvania State University and Bair, who was then at the University of Colorado at Boulder, argued that the report contained methodological errors that led Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly to vastly overstate the size of Bangladesh’s system of exporting factories, the number of workers not covered by the Accord and Alliance, and the number of factory workers in the country overall. Critics of the NYU study argued that because of these overestimates, resources may be spent trying to locate and fix factories that don’t exist, or to provide aid to workers who are already covered by the Accord and Alliance.