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January 22, 2013

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EU calls on Bangladesh and Pakistan to improve safety in textile factories

The Bangladeshi government has been called on by the EU to comply with relevant health and safety legislation and put in place measures to prevent a recurrence of the textile-factory fire that killed 112 people in November.

In a resolution adopted by the European Parliament at the end of last week MEPs regretted the deaths at the Tazreen factory in Dhaka, as well as the 289 deaths in a textile-factory blaze in Karachi, Pakistan in September last year.

The resolution called on the governments of both countries to continue with “thorough investigations” into the events and put in place measures to prevent a recurrence, “including full compliance by all manufacturers with health and safety legislation – notably the Labour Act 2006 in Bangladesh – and the establishment of an effective and independent system of labour inspections and inspections of industrial buildings”.

There are more than 5000 textile factories in Bangladesh alone, employing some 3.5 million people. The EU notes that rising labour costs in other parts of the world have pushed such low-skilled manufacturing jobs into south-east Asia, particularly Bangladesh, where clothes make up 75 per cent of exports.

It estimates that, since 2005, 600 garment workers have died in fires in Bangladeshi factories, many of which, it says, could have been prevented.

Some progress on safety has been made, mainly in the form of the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which was concluded between various trade unions, NGOs and multinational textile retailers. It aims to improve safety standards at production sites by, among other things, establishing an independent inspection system and improving involvement by factory workers through the creation of health and safety committees.

With regard to the latter, the resolution “notes the important role that can be played by workers and trade unions” and emphasises the importance of access to factories for unions, so they can educate workers on how to protect themselves and their rights.

The resolution also calls on major international garment brands to “critically investigate their supply chains and cooperate with their sub-contractors to improve occupational health and safety standards”.

Focusing on the Tazreen disaster, it noted that “prominent Western companies” had contracts with the owners of the factory for the supply of garments and said it was “regrettable” that some of them had initially sought to deny working with the firm.

One MEP who took part in the debate in the European Parliament agreed that the business-owners need to do more. Paul Murphy MEP, a member of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Parliamentary Group, highlighted that responsibility for the deaths lies with both owners of “death-trap factories”, as well as Western “big business”.

He said: “Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter. It’s clothing trade was worth $19 billion in 2011 alone, with its factories producing for major brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein, H&M and Walmart. Yet 40 per cent of the population live under the poverty line of $1.25 a day.”

The Irish MEP also drew attention to the process of sandblasting denim, a common practice in Bangladesh that, he said, puts workers at risk of contracting silicosis and lung cancer owing to the silica particles they are forced to inhale.

The resolution will now be sent to the governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as to those of the EU member states and the director-general of the International Labour Organisation. 

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