LONDON, April 25 (Reuters) - Major western clothing
retailers squeezing Asian suppliers and a flawed approach to
ensuring even basic working standards are fuelling conditions
for tragedies like the latest factory collapse in Bangladesh,
NGOs said on Thursday.
At least 260 people, mainly female workers, were killed and
more than 1,000 were injured when the eight-storey Rana Plaza
factory building in Savar, 30 km (20 miles) outside the capital
Dhaka, collapsed on Wednesday.
"What we're saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is
automatically leading towards these types of disasters," John
Hilary, executive director at British charity War on Want, told
He said western clothing retailers' desire to undercut
rivals has translated into increasing pressure on foreign
suppliers to reduce costs.
"If you've got that, then it's absolutely clear that you're
not going to be able to have the right kind of building
regulations, health and safety, fire safety. Those things will
become more and more impossible as the cost price goes down."
Hilary said the push for lower costs inevitably led to
factories cutting corners. "As a result of that, we see the sort
of disaster that happened yesterday," he said.
War on Want and its partner in Bangladesh, the National
Garment Workers' Federation, called on major international
buyers to be held to account.
"This negligence must stop. The deaths of these workers
could have been avoided if multinational corporations,
governments and factory owners took workers' protection
seriously," NGWF president, Amirul Haque Amin, said in a
Gareth Price-Jones, Bangladesh country director of British
charity Oxfam, said western companies had not done enough.
"Western buyers could be doing much, much more, and they
have a moral responsibility to do so," he told Reuters. "Western
buyers really need to press for decent wages and safe working
He said Bangladeshi building regulations were not robust
enough for construction in an earthquake zone and were, in any
case, frequently ignored.
Around 4,500 Bangladeshi factories produce clothes for many
of the world's major brands, employing 4 million workers and
generating 80 percent of Bangladesh's $24 billion annual
exports, making it the world's No. 2 apparel exporter behind
But with wages as low as $37 a month for some workers
toiling for 10-15 hours a day, and increasing publicity about
unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, some retailers were
getting worried about their reputation.
A lot have introduced corporate social responsibility (CSR)
programmes, where they carry out factory audits and inspections
and talk to employees about worker conditions.
But War on Want says the CSR processes are often flawed.
"What happens is the workers are trained in what to say, the
factories present favourable books and keep back the real
books," Hilary said, noting that in countries like China there
were courses to coach factories on how to pass an audit without
telling the truth.
The Savar disaster came five months after Bangladesh's worst
factory fire, which killed 112 people, and another incident at a
factory in January in which seven died.
The Ethical Trading Initiative, an umbrella organisation
that brings NGOs, unions and brands together to try to improve
working conditions, said the latest tragedy demonstrated the
chronic widespread problems in the sector that affect the most
basic of workers' rights.
"These incidents all serve as yet another call to action for
the Bangladesh industry, government, retailers, worker
representatives and NGOs to work together, to raise workplace
safety standards across the country's garment sector," it said.
In Washington, the Asia advocate for the U.S. NGO Human
Rights Watch said weak protection of labour rights contributed
to the tragedy at Rana Plaza, where none of the factories are
"Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized,
its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the
building on Wednesday morning," said John Sifton.
"The right to organise a union in Bangladesh is not just a
matter of getting fair wages, it's a matter of saving lives," he
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told
reporters that labour rights in Bangladesh, as well as work
conditions, were "something that we've raised in the human
rights report, we raised in our bilateral dialogue, certainly
directly with the government from our embassy."
The State Department's annual human rights report for 2012,
published on April 19, said trade unions in Bangladesh were able
to conduct collective bargaining, "but government action made it
nearly impossible to form new trade unions in many sectors, for
example, in the ready-made garment and shrimp industries."