Inside Story - Bangladesh: Sanctions for safety

Al Jazeera English
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As funerals for the more than 400 garment workers killed in a building collapse last week continue, the European Union has threatened Bangladesh's garment industry with trade sanctions to encourage improvements in safety for the 3.6m people employed in the still growing industry.

Worth an annual $20b, Bangladesh's garment industry is the world's second-largest clothing exporter after China. But 80 percent of the more than three million people employed as garment workers are women working six days a week for up to 12 hours per day. In some cases, children have been known to be employed by the companies that provide the global supply of cheaply-made clothes. Many of the factories pay as little as $38 per month.

Recent events have brought the dangers inherent in the working conditions in the 4,000 factories across the country - where overcrowding and locked fire doors are common sites - to the fore.

In November, a factory fire on the outskirts of the Bangaldeshi capital, Dhaka, killed scores of garment workers. The 112 people who died in the nine-storey factory operated by Tazreen Fashions represented the country's worst factory fire.

A building collapse near Dhaka killed more than 400 last week.

In the days following the collapse, it was revealed that factory bosses forced 3,000 workers to continue working despite police orders to evacuate the building because of cracks found in the structure the day before the collapse.

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers demonstrated in May Day rallies to demand the death penalty for the owner of the factory, who is under arrest.

Now, the European Union, the country's largest export market, is considering a review of its trade policies with Dhaka to encourage improvements in safety.

"The EU is presently considering appropriate action, including through the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) - 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," read a statement issued by the office of Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief.

Exports to the EU bring in more than $11.4bn annually, but are the threat of sanctions enough to make the garment industry change its ways?

Will customers of outlets like Mango and Wal-Mart, both known to utilise Bangaldeshi factories for their wares, accept potential price increases if multinationals have to look elsewhere for manufacturing?

Joining Mike Hanna on this Inside Story, to discuss the possibilities for reform of a $20b industry are : Dipu Moni, minister of foreign affairs; Ben Vanpeperstraete, international policy officer for Clean Clothes Campaign; and Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, Bangladesh garment manufacturers and exporters assocation president.

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