The EU is considering moves against Bangladesh, including restricting trade access to the European single market, in an attempt to press the country to improve its labour practices after last month’s deadly factory collapse.
Bangladeshi police said on Wednesday that the death toll in the Rana plaza disaster on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24 had passed 400 with hundreds still missing. On Tuesday, rescuers said they had given up hope of finding more people alive.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said he was shocked by a headline that said some of the workers’ monthly salaries were €38.
“This was the payment of these people who have died . . . and this is called ‘slave labour’,” he said. Vatican Radio said the Pope made the remarks during a private mass at the Vatican.
In a brief statement, Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, and Karel De Gucht, trade commissioner, said: “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 under the ‘Everything But Arms’ scheme – in order to incentivise responsible management of supply chains involving developing countries.”
Separately on Wednesday, a trade union group working with clothing brands that source products in Bangladesh vowed to reach an agreement on improving fire and building safety in the country by May 15. The pledge came after the group, Industriall, met on Monday in Germany with retailers including Gap and JC Penney.
Scott Nova of the non-profit Worker Rights Consortium, who attended the meeting, said: “It remains to be seen whether any of the companies are committed to signing a meaningful and enforceable safety agreement.”
About 3.6m people work in Bangladesh’s garment industry, making it the second-largest clothing exporter. The bulk of exports – 60 per cent – go to Europe.
EU officials acknowledged suspending Bangladesh from the bloc’s preferences scheme – which allows the country’s large textile industry to export to the EU free of import duties – would be an extreme measure, previously reserved for countries such as Myanmar as part of a sanctions regime.
But the European Commission decided to consider suspension after previous warnings about working conditions, which came as a result of two fires in the past six months killed dozens in garment factories, went unheeded.
Officials acknowledged a suspension was unlikely; it requires approval of the EU’s 27 member states as well as the European parliament. But they hoped the threat of such a move would shock Bangladeshi authorities and European companies doing business there into action.
“We will put a fire under their feet a little bit,” said one Commission official.
Among the moves Brussels is hoping for is outreach from Bangladeshi authorities for EU assistance towards implementing international labour standards, particularly those in the UN’s International Labour Organisation conventions.
With a spotlight now on their business ties in Bangladesh, western retailers that used suppliers housed in the doomed building have begun offering ill-defined compensation to the victims.
But aid groups have been unimpressed by some of the vague promises such as UK discount retailer Matalan’s pledge to “provide financial and other support”. The offer to those affected fell short of meeting victims’ rights, said War on Want.
Kik, a German discount clothing retailer that one of the companies in the collapsed factory said it supplied, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Kik has previously said it set up a $1m fund to help those affected by a fire at a Karachi factory in September, where 260 people died. Kik bought jeans from the factory.
Kik was also featured in a German television documentary last month alleging a supplier in Bangladesh used child labour. Kik said it had investigated and found no evidence of children under 14 working, but said it had ended a relationship with a supplier in Bangladesh after an order placed there had been passed on to an illegal subcontractor.
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