Bangladesh 'sweatshops' thrive despite accidents

Blame for a string of tragedies in Bangladesh's garment industry must be shared between ruthless factory bosses, a negligent government and Western retailers who place cost above safety, say activists.

At least 190 have died in the latest disaster to befall the sector, which generated $20 billion in exports for the impoverished South Asian country last year and put "Made in Bangladesh" clothes in almost every Western home.

The collapsed Rana Plaza near the capital contained five garment factories where workers paid as little as $37 a month were cutting clothes for low-cost British retailer Primark, among many other brands.

In November a fire at a factory in the capital Dhaka killed 111 workers, who are mostly women, spotlighting the widespread disregard for safety which leads to regular protests and complaints from activists.

Locked fire escapes, a lack of fire-fighting equipment and managers telling staff that the fire alarm was a rehearsal were blamed for the death toll, then the worst in the local industry's history.

Following Wednesday's disaster survivors told how the previous day bosses had ordered workers to return to factories on the upper floors of the building despite an evacuation when cracks appeared on the outside of the structure.

In the wake of the November fire, the government and the nation's powerful textile lobby, which effectively counters the generally toothless worker unions, vowed to compensate the victims and clean up the sector.

"The government of Bangladesh has been promising for years to take meaningful steps to improve safety in apparel factories and they have never delivered on those promises," said Scott Nova from the Worker Rights Consortium.

"The government understands that strict labour rights regulation, which would raise production costs, would likely lead to brands and retailers shifting orders elsewhere," added Nova, executive director of the Washington-based group.

Despite a round of inspections ordered after the November fire, a deadly blaze in January at a plant making clothing for Spanish giant Inditex, the owner of the popular Zara brand, killed eight workers, two of whom were underage.

Bangladesh started making clothes for export three decades ago and has successfully promoted an industry which has overcome its association with "sweatshop" labour.

Years of double-digit growth and its 4,500 factories have turned the nation into a global heavyweight and helped reduce endemic poverty among the dense 153 million population at a faster rate than in neighbouring India.

Consulting giant McKinsey in a report on the sector described Bangladesh as the "next China" and predicted that its garment exports could triple by 2020.

In January, despite concern about Bangladesh's reputation after the November fire, apparel exports rose over 20 percent compared with the year before, to $2.09 billion, government figures show.

Vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association Shahidullah Azim said that accidents are due to old non-compliant factories that need to be upgraded.

"We fear that some buyers may cancel orders, but we're trying hard to improve safety conditions," he told AFP.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says consumers could help pressure retailers to switch orders from Bangladesh, which would bring about change.

"We have seen it in the case of blood diamonds, how when consumers become aware and avoid purchasing diamonds that are not sourced properly, then the industry is forced to change," she said.

She also decried the intimidation of labour leaders and activists working for better conditions who have been "targeted, murdered and slapped with court cases".

Babul Akhter, head of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, said he did not expect justice in the latest accident.

"Garment entrepreneurs are above law here. There is hardly any example of an owner being prosecuted for this kind of outright murder," he told AFP.

"The Western retailers are also complicit because they give a blind eye to the manufacturers shoddy practices. Like manufacturers, these retailers are also using Bangladesh's army of cheap labourers as money making machines," he said.

Spanish retailer Mango has admitted to links with a manufacturer in the collapsed building, while Wal-Mart said it was investigating allegations from campaigners that it had also placed orders there.

Italian fashion label Benetton denied any links, but campaigners produced documents that appear to show orders placed in September last year.