LONDON Major western clothing retailers squeezing Asian suppliers and a flawed approach to ensuring even basic working standards are fuelling conditions for tragedies like the latest factory collapse in Bangladesh, NGOs said on Thursday.
At least 187, mainly female workers, were killed and over 1,000 injured when the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building in Savar, 30 kilometers (20 miles) outside the capital Dhaka, collapsed on Wednesday.
"What we're saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is automatically leading towards these types of disasters," John Hilary, executive director at British charity War on Want, told Reuters.
He said western clothing retailers' desire to undercut rivals has translated into increasing pressure on foreign suppliers to reduce costs.
"If you've got that, then it's absolutely clear that you're not going to be able to have the right kind of building regulations, health and safety, fire safety. Those things will become more and more impossible as the cost price goes down."
Hilary said the push for lower costs inevitably led to factories cutting corners: "As a result of that, we see the sort of disaster that happened yesterday."
War on Want and its partner in Bangladesh, the National Garment Workers' Federation, called on major international buyers to be held to account.
"This negligence must stop. The deaths of these workers could have been avoided if multinational corporations, governments and factory owners took workers' protection seriously," NGWF president, Amirul Haque Amin, said in a statement.
Gareth Price-Jones, Bangladesh country director of British charity Oxfam, said western companies had not done enough.
"Western buyers could be doing much, much more, and they have a moral responsibility to do so," he told Reuters. "Western buyers really need to press for decent wages and safe working conditions."
He said Bangladeshi building regulations were not robust enough for construction in an earthquake zone and were, in any case, frequently ignored.
Around 4,500 Bangladeshi factories pump out clothes for many of the world's major brands, employing 4 million workers and generating 80 percent of Bangladesh's $24 billion annual exports, making it the world's No.2 apparel exporter behind China.
But with wages as low as $37 a month for some workers toiling for 10-15 hours a day, and increasing publicity about unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, some retailers were getting worried about their reputation.
A lot have introduced corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, where they carry out factory audits and inspections and talk to employees about worker conditions.
But War on Want says the CSR processes are often flawed.
"What happens is the workers are trained in what to say, the factories present favorable books and keep back the real books," Hilary said, noting that in countries like China there were courses to coach factories on how to pass an audit without telling the truth.
The Savar disaster came five months after Bangladesh's worst ever factory fire, which killed 112 people, and another incident at a factory in January in which seven died.
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an umbrella organization that brings NGOs, unions and brands together to try and improve working conditions, said the latest tragedy demonstrated the chronic widespread problems in the sector that affect the most basic of workers' rights.
"These incidents all serve as yet another call to action for the Bangladesh industry, government, retailers, worker representatives and NGOs to work together, to raise workplace safety standards across the country's garment sector," it said.
(Reporting by James Davey and Neil Maidment; Editing by Will Waterman)