UPDATE 1-Bangladesh tells EU it will boost worker rights, inspections

Mon Jul 8, 2013 2:19pm EDT

* Duty-free access to Europe helped garment trade boom

* US cut trade benefits in June after factory disaster

* Bangladeshi minister promises new labour law soon

* Brands agree to help fund safety improvements

By Emma Thomasson

GENEVA, July 8 (Reuters) - Bangladesh pledged on Monday to quickly boost worker rights and recruit more factory inspectors as it seeks to preserve European Union trade benefits after 1,129 workers were killed in the collapse of a garment plant in April.

The EU, which gives preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, has threatened punitive measures to press Dhaka to improve worker safety standards after the collapse of the illegally built Rana Plaza factory.

Instead, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht launched a "sustainability compact" at a meeting with Bangladesh officials, who committed to enacting a new labour law by the end of 2013 and increasing the factory inspectorate by 200 staff to 800.

"We have a carrot and a stick but I prefer to use the carrot," he said. "We want to help the Bangladeshi people, not to punish them."

The EU said it would reallocate funds to help rehabilitate those permanently disabled in the Rana Plaza collapse and extend technical assistance to improve labour standards in Bangladesh and other impoverished countries in the region.

Tax concessions offered by Western countries and the low wages paid by the manufacturers have helped to turn Bangladesh's garment exports into a $19 billion annual industry, with 60 percent of the clothes going to Europe.

In late June, U.S. President Barack Obama cut off U.S. trade benefits for Bangladesh in a mostly symbolic response to conditions in the country's garment sector, given that clothing is not eligible for U.S. duty cuts.

De Gucht said the United States was considering whether to join the compact announced on Monday.

Meanwhile, a group of North American-based apparel retailers and trade associations plans to announce its own Bangladesh garment worker safety plan in Washington on Wednesday. Details of that plan were not immediately available, but the group said it includes "comprehensive and measurable actions."

Earlier on Monday, a group of mainly European retailers announced they had finalised a plan to promote worker safety through coordinated inspections. But many U.S. retailers have shunned the deal, proposing instead a non-binding initiative.

STAY ENGAGED

The EU imported roughly 9.2 billion euros ($11.8 billion) of goods from Bangladesh last year, with textiles from clothing to towels and bedding accounting for almost 93 percent, corresponding to some 2.5 million jobs, mostly held by women.

Bangladesh receives duty-free access to EU markets under a programme known as the globalised scheme of preferences (GSP), designed to help developing countries grow through trade. The country has the most generous level of GSP.

De Gucht said Bangladesh should not take that for granted and the EU could still consider action if there was "insufficient progress for Bangladeshi workers."

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said parliament would reconvene soon to adopt a new labour law. The bill will make it easier to form trade unions. Workers can now form a union only with permission of the factory owner.

"We realise in the wake of the recent tragedies our friends ... expect us to deliver fast. Please do bear with us and stay engaged in Bangladesh," Moni said.

But the minister also hit out at brands which she said continued to raise retail prices while squeezing suppliers.

"Some leading buyers are still quietly pressing for lower prices," she said. "How do we ensure fair pricing? The demand side must also come forward on delivering their part."

In the compact, the EU and Bangladesh welcomed the European-led plan, while urging all retailers and brands adopt a unified code of conduct to audit factories.

Comments (0)
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

California state worker Albert Jagow (L) goes over his retirement options with Calpers Retirement Program Specialist JeanAnn Kirkpatrick at the Calpers regional office in Sacramento, California October 21, 2009. Calpers, the largest U.S. public pension fund, manages retirement benefits for more than 1.6 million people, with assets comparable in value to the entire GDP of Israel. The Calpers investment portfolio had a historic drop in value, going from a peak of $250 billion in the fall of 2007 to $167 billion in March 2009, a loss of about a third during that period. It is now around $200 billion. REUTERS/Max Whittaker   (UNITED STATES) - RTXPWOZ

How to get out of debt

Financial adviser Eric Brotman offers strategies for cutting debt from student loans and elder care -- and how to avoid money woes in the first place.  Video