Factory employees speak to Al Jazeera about their concern for their own lives after latest incident to hit industry.
The foreign minister of Bangladesh has defended the government’s initiatives to improve labour rights in the country, amid mounting pressure over perceived lax safety standards blamed for last week’s deadly building collapse.
Dipu Moni spoke to Al Jazeera from Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday as the confirmed death toll from the collapse of the illegally built Rana Plaza building near the capital Dhaka crossed the 400 mark.
There have been widespread accusations that safety regulations are both insufficient and rarely enforced in Bangladesh’s $20bn garment industry, as the collapse was only the latest in a string of deadly disasters.
Moni said a “culture of impunity” had prevailed in the country for many decades, making many people – including owners of buildings and factories – feel they did not need to comply with laws and building codes.
She said that since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s government came into power in 2009, it has been taking “very stern action” against those who do not comply with laws.
“We have been working on improving labour standards; we have been working on improving safety conditions in workplaces; and we have been doing it in collaboration with the owners of the factories, with labour organisations and with international organisations,” she said.
Moni also said the problems could not be solved “overnight” and that due to the sheer size of the country’s garment industry, some factories were not yet up to the set standards.
Moni’s defence of the government’s record came as the EU announced that it would look at steps to promote better practices after a host of European retailers including Primark, Benetton and Mango admitted to using factories in the building that collapsed on April 24.
Nearly 60 percent of Bangladesh’s garments are shipped to the EU free of duties and tariffs.
|Foreign Minister Dipu Moni talks to Al Jazeera|
“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 Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, and Karel de Gucht, EU trade commissioner.
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.
Separately, the Swiss-based IndustriAll Global Union, which represents 50 million workers worldwide, set on Tuesday a May 15 deadline to finalise with Western retailers a commitment to a fire-and-building-safety plan for Bangladesh.
“Funds will be made available for inspections, training and upgrades of dangerous facilities,” IndustriAll Global Union said in a statement and called on retailers to renegotiate contracts to pay suppliers more in order to guarantee living wages for workers and to enable technical upgrades to factories.
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.
Anger in Bangladesh has been growing since the Rana Plaza building’s collapse in Dhaka’s commercial suburb of Savar.
As funerals were held for 18 of the victims in Dhaka on Wednesday, the number of confirmed dead stood at 402, with 2,500 others injured. About 140 people are still missing.
Several thousand workers rallied in the city to mark Labour Day, and demanded 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,” Moshrefa Mishu, a labour leader, said.
“A healthy and safe atmosphere should be made in the factories.”
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.