As with many low or middle-income countries, Bangladesh faces several challenges when it comes to building construction. Cities are densely populated and land is at a premium. Suitable building materials are scarce and there’s a shortage of structural engineers. Large parts of the country are also less than six metres above sea-level, which means its numerous rivers and waterways are prone to flooding.
Prior to the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, ensuring buildings were structurally sound was the responsibility of factory owners. It was not a formal part of auditing of suppliers facilities by brands and retailers.
Since the disaster, Primark has been working alongside other brands, trade unions and NGOs in Bangladesh through the Accord on Fire and Building Safety to improve the structural integrity of factories. It has also implemented its own building inspection programme to assess factories, and provide engineering expertise and advice to take any corrective action as required.
Supporting the work of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety
Primark was one of the first international retailers to sign the Accord in the wake of Rana Plaza in 2013. The legally-binding agreement requires that factories are inspected by engineers to assess the structural integrity of buildings. Following an inspection, factory owners are given an enforceable corrective action plan to address any areas found for improvement within a stipulated time-period. Continued business from Accord members depends on completion of these remediation plans.
As part of signing up to the Accord, retailers and brands are given responsibility as ‘lead brand’ to work with specific factories to ensure this work is undertaken. Primark is the ‘lead brand’ in more than 30 factories in Bangladesh. As part of this role, Primark works directly with factory owners to encourage and provide technical support for any corrective action required, reporting back to the Accord and to fellow members.
A dedicated structural integrity programme established by Primark
In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, Primark took additional and immediate action to ensure all its suppliers in Bangladesh were taking urgent steps to assess and improve the structural integrity of factory buildings.
Six weeks after the tragedy, Primark established its own structural integrity programme. Each factory was assessed against international standards. If areas were found to require improvement, Primark and a team of structural and civil engineers from international engineering firms, MCS and also Mott MacDonald, worked with factories to provide technical support and guidance.
Today, the Primark Structural Integrity Programme is headed up by Primark’s own dedicated Chartered Structural Engineer who continues to be supported by a team at Mott MacDonald. Factory inspections required by Primark are comprehensive and rigorous and are undertaken for all factories manufacturing for Primark in Bangladesh.
Structural engineers meet with factory management to review existing structural plans and drawings for the building. Next they conduct a physical inspection of a building, both inside and out. Engineers search for anything that might alert them to a problem. This includes looking for visual cracks, through to checking the location of columns and supporting structures.
Engineers also look for signs that part of a factory might have become unintentionally overloaded. This might be due to the addition of a temporary storage structure or the installation of heavy machinery such as washing or fabric printing machines on upper floors. These physical inspections are supported by a series of calculations and tests to ascertain whether a building is fit for purpose.
Following an inspection, engineers provide factories with detailed and specific technical information explaining any improvements required to meet Primark’s requirements. Primark’s team then work directly with factory owners to give guidance in how to make changes. If a supplier to Primark fails to meet Primark’s requirements we will not proceed with the product orders.
The work carried out by Primark and its expert partners on structural integrity will remain integral to its work with suppliers in Bangladesh.