UPDATE 2-Bangladesh urges no harsh EU measures over factory deaths

Sat May 4, 2013 9:01am EDT

(Adds detail)
    By Ruma Paul and Serajul Quadir
    DHAKA, May 4 (Reuters) - Bangladesh urged the European Union
on Saturday not to take tough measures against its economically
crucial textile industry in response to the collapse of a
garment factory that killed 550 people.
    Bodies were still being pulled from the ruins on Saturday as
tearful families stood by waiting for news of victims of the
country's worst ever industrial accident.
    The European Union, which gives preferential access to
Bangladeshi garments, had threatened punitive measures in order
to press Dhaka to improve worker safety standards after the
collapse of the illegally built factory on April 24.
    The disaster, believed to have been triggered when the
building's electricity generators were started up during a
blackout, put the spotlight on Western retailers who use the
impoverished South Asian nation as a source of cheap goods.
    About 4 million people work in Bangladesh's garment
industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter
after China. Some earn as little as $38 a month, conditions Pope
Francis has compared to "slave labour". 
    Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has blamed the factory owners
for the disaster, saying they ignored warnings about cracks in
the walls of the building. 
    Duty-free access offered by Western countries and low wages
have helped turn Bangladesh's garment exports into a $19
billion-a-year industry, with 60 percent of clothes going to
Europe. 
    "If the EU or any other buyers impose any harsh trade
conditions on Bangladesh it will hurt the country's economy ...
millions of workers will lose their jobs," Mahbub Ahmed, the top
civil servant in Bangladesh's Commerce Ministry, told Reuters.
    The government has not received any formal notification of
punitive action from the EU or any other country over the
deaths, he said.
    Separately, a group of government officials and textile
factory employers and workers met officials of the International
Labour Organization and agreed on steps to improve the lives of
workers. 
    These included plans to inspect safety standards at all
export-oriented garment factories, and to increase the number of
safety inspectors. They also agreed to push in parliament a
reform package giving workers more rights.
 
    
    ACCUSATIONS, PRAYERS
    Authorities have arrested nine people in connection with the
collapse, including an engineer who had raised safety concerns
about the eight-story complex a day before the disaster.
    "The Industrial Police had asked the owners of the factories
to suspend operations after cracks were noticed in the
building," Hasina told a news conference late on Friday. "But
they decided to operate their factories. After a power blackout
when they started their generators the building caved in." 
    The owners of the factories have not commented publicly on
the accusation that they were to blame. Four factory owners have
been arrested, as has the owner of the building.
    On Saturday, verses from Islam's holy book the Koran were
read out for the souls of the victims, as the stench of decaying
bodies hung in the air around the site.
    "The bodies that are coming now cannot be identified. The
clothes the victims were wearing are also damaged, the faces are
decomposed," Mohammad Masum, a volunteer rescue worker at the
site in Dhaka's suburbs told Reuters Television.
    The collapse was the third deadly incident in six months
that raised questions about worker safety and labour conditions
in Bangladesh. Human-rights groups say there has never been a
case in which a factory owner was prosecuted over the deaths of
workers. 
    "After this accident we are very scared and worried about
such an accident happening at our factory," said garment worker
Farida Parveen.
    "We have demanded that the government take action and
examine all factories so that we can all work in a good
environment."

 (Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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