EU threatens action over Bangladesh working conditions

Union will press for inquiry into labour practices unless it sees improvement

The collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar outside Dhaka, in which more than 1,100 people died on April 24th. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

The collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar outside Dhaka, in which more than 1,100 people died on April 24th. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Fri, May 24, 2013, 01:00

The European Union will press for an investigation into labour practices in Bangladesh unless it sees an improvement in the country’s working conditions following the collapse last month of a building housing a number of garment factories.

European commissioner for trade Karel De Gucht also said clothing companies and retailers must take responsibility for conditions “along their supply lines”. The EU intends to convene a “high-level meeting” of retailers and other stakeholders in June where the need to uphold international labour standards will be stressed, he added.

More than 1,100 people, mostly female garment workers, died after the Rena Plaza building collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on April 24th.

Dozens of retailers have since signed a legally binding plan requiring them to help finance fire and safety and building improvements for factories they use in Bangladesh.

Addressing the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr De Gucht said this was a welcome development but stressed that the EU would be looking to ensure the new rules were implemented.

“We have to work with the government of Bangladesh,” he said. “But work also needs to have a goal and the goal should be that the working conditions get better . . . and I will be very strict in this. If things do not go better I will ask to launch an investigation.”

A committee investigating the incident has blamed poor quality construction materials and the improper use of building permits for the collapse. It has recommended that nine people detained in connection with the disaster be sentenced to life in prison.

“We asked the government to give the highest punishment to all the accused as it was nothing but gross negligence of responsibilities for which 1,130 innocent workers were killed,” Mainuddin Khandaker, a senior interior ministry official, told Reuters.

The EU is considering trade action against Bangladesh to pressure Dhaka to improve safety standards. Last year EU member states imported about €9.2 billion of goods from Bangladesh.

“This is not about trade,” Mr De Gucht said, “this is about the respect of human rights . . . and when you look at the pecking order human dignity comes before trade”.