DHAKA, May 2 (Reuters) - The European Union is considering
trade action against Bangladesh, which has preferential access
to EU markets for its garments, to pressure Dhaka to improve
safety standards after a building collapse killed more than 400
Pope Francis condemned the conditions of workers who died in
the disaster as "slave labour", while in Dhaka several thousand
workers rallied to mark Labour Day, some calling for capital
punishment for those responsible for the tragedy.
"The owner of the building ... should be hanged to death and
compensation should be given to the injured and those who died,"
said labour leader Moshrefa Mishu. "A healthy and safe
atmosphere should be made in the factories."
Duty-free access offered by Western countries and low wages
have helped turn Bangladesh's garment exports into a $19 billion
a year industry, with 60 percent of clothes going to Europe.
Any action by the EU on Bangladesh's duty-free and
quota-free access would require the agreement of all member
states and could take more than a year to implement.
"The European Union calls upon the Bangladeshi authorities
to act immediately to ensure that factories across the country
comply with international labour standards ...," the 27-nation
bloc said in a statement issued by EU foreign policy chief
Catherine Ashton and Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht.
In the United States, prominent Democrats Sander Levin and
George Miller wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging
him to facilitate the development of a concrete plan of action
to address the range of issues relating to working conditions
and worker rights in the garment sector in Bangladesh.
The death toll from the collapse last week of the illegally
built Rana Plaza in Dhaka's commercial suburb of Savar rose to
411 on Wednesday, and about 40 unidentified victims were buried.
One woman at the cemetery collapsed into tears when she
recognised the body of her sister by her dress.
"SHOT ACROSS THE BOWS"
With local anger growing over the country's worst industrial
accident, a delegation from the International Labour
Organisation met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka to offer
support and press for action to prevent any more such incidents.
The EU had already urged Bangladesh to adhere to ILO
standards in January after two earlier factory fires, including
one last November in which 112 people died.
A European Union official said the latest EU statement,
issued late on Tuesday, was "a shot across the bows". "We want
to turn up the diplomatic heat on them and get them to sit down
and discuss this with us."
About 3.6 million people work in Bangladesh's garment
industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter
behind China. The industry employs mostly women, some of whom
earn as little as $38 a month.
The Bangladeshi prime minister warned factory owners they
would have to take care of their workers. "You will have to
ensure workers' fair wages, allowances and other rights ... you
must look after their workplace safety if you want to do
business," she told a discussion forum.
Pope Francis added to pressure for change in his toughest
remarks on workers' rights since his election on March 13, an
indication he plans to make social justice a plank of his
"Living on 38 euros ($50) a month - that was the pay of
these people who died. That is called slave labour," Francis
said in a private impromptu sermon at his personal morning Mass
in his residence, Vatican Radio reported.
There were about 3,000 people inside the complex, which was
built on a swamp, when it collapsed. About 2,500 people have
been rescued, many injured, but many remain unaccounted for.
"Why are they taking so much time to pull out bodies?" asked
a grief-stricken father who, like many others, has been waiting
on the streets near the collapsed factory, hoping for
information about his son.
Police said DNA samples of the bodies buried on Wednesday
had been preserved, so tests could be done if relatives came
The building's owner Mohammed Sohel Rana and his father,
Abdul Khalek, are among eight people arrested so far, and police
are seeking a fifth factory boss, Spanish citizen David Mayor,
although it was unclear whether he was in Bangladesh at the time
of the accident.
EU IS BIGGEST MARKET
The factory collapse was the third deadly incident in six
months to raise questions about worker safety and labour
conditions in the poor South Asian country, which relies on
garments for 80 percent of its exports. Clothes made in five
factories inside the Rana Plaza building were produced for
retailers in Europe and Canada.
In the year to June 2012, Bangladesh's garment exports to
the EU rose to $11.37 billion from $10.52 billion a year
earlier, according to Bangladesh's commerce ministry. Germany is
the main EU market at $3.4 billion, followed by the UK at $2.13
billion, Spain at $1.71 billion and France at $1.27 billion.
Bangladesh's next biggest garment export market is the
United States, which accounts for 23 percent, or $4.53 billion.
"The EU is presently considering appropriate action,
including through the Generalised System of Preferences -
through which Bangladesh currently receives duty-free and
quota-free access to the EU market," Ashton and de Gucht said.
"The sheer scale of this disaster and the alleged
criminality around the building's construction is finally
becoming clear to the world."
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an umbrella
organisation that brings NGOs, unions and brands together to try
to improve working conditions, said retailers, major brands and
the suppliers who own the factories would have to contribute
towards factory inspections.
"Bangladeshi companies who supply to our retailers need to
be pricing in operating a decent factory, a safe factory and
paying proper wages," ETI director Peter McAllister told
"And then the retail world needs to recognise that the real
cost of having sustainable businesses are going to be higher,"
he said, adding that he thought retailers would accept slightly
higher prices if all outlets agreed to the changes.
Following a private emergency meeting of Canadian retailers,
the Retail Council of Canada said on Tuesday it would develop a
new set of guidelines. That meeting brought together retailers
including Loblaw, Sears Canada Inc and Wal-Mart Canada
, to discuss how to deal with the tragedy.
Loblaw Executive Chairman Galen Weston said the company
would take further action "to address the situation" following
the collapse of the building, where some of its "Joe Fresh"
garments were made, although he did not offer specifics.
Representatives of some 45 companies, including Gap Inc
, H&M, J.C. Penney, Nike Inc,
Wal-Mart, Britain's Primark, Marks & Spencer and
Tesco, and Li & Fung, met officials from the
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in
Dhaka this week to discuss worker and plant safety.
Primark and Loblaw have promised to compensate the families
of garment workers killed while making their clothes.