Fire incidents at Bangladesh garment factories worry EU

Dhaka (The Daily Star/ANN) - The European Union yesterday expressed grave concern over the fire incident at Smart Export Garment Ltd and urged the authorities to move quickly to ensure factories comply with the international labour standards.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the deaths of young workers from a fire this weekend in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh," said Catherine Ashton, high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Karel De Gucht, commissioner for Trade, in a joint statement.

"This tragedy is all the more shocking as it follows only two months after another textile factory fire in Bangladesh killed more than a hundred people."

Their concern was aired after at least seven female garment workers had died of suffocation in a fire incident at Smart Export Garment Ltd in Mohammadpur on January 26.

The EU is Bangladesh's largest trade partner and the country benefits from preferential access to the EU market.

"The European Union is deeply concerned about the labour conditions, including health and safety provisions, established for workers in factories across the country," said the joint statement.

"In the light of both these tragedies, the European Union calls upon the Bangladeshi authorities to act immediately to ensure that factories comply with international labour standards including International Labour Organisation conventions."

The duo also said the EU was willing and ready to assist the Bangladeshi authorities in any way it could to meet the international standards.

The joint statement also urged the European and international companies to do more to promote better health and safety standards in garment factories in Bangladesh, in line with internationally recognised guidelines on Corporate Social Responsibility.

However, no western buyers have come forward to aid the victims of the fire at Smart Export Garment, although the factory was producing clothes for some renowned brands in western countries.

The government yesterday launched countrywide inspection of garment factories as part of its efforts to stop fire incidents in the country's most important sector.

Md Habibur Rahman, chief inspector of the Department of Factory and Establishment, told The Daily Star that the department had begun the inspection to check the safety standards in factories and offer remedies.

A total of 20 teams have been formed to complete the checking of 4,500 factories across the country. Initially, they would visit factories in the capital, Narayanganj and Narsingdi, he said.

The official said his teams were checking whether the factories have fire and building safety permits, enough fire fighting equipment and that their emergency exits are locked.

"If we find minor faults, we will write to them setting deadline for correcting the loopholes. We will file cases with the labour courts if they default. The factories that grossly violate the fire and safety standards and are very risky will be shut down," said the chief inspector.

Following the deadliest fire incident at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia last November, the fire department conducted inspections at garment factories in Ashulia, its adjoining areas and in Chittagong.

At least 1,000 garment workers have been killed and 3,000 were injured in more than 275 incidents in factories in Bangladesh since 1990, according to the Washington-based International Labour Rights Forum.

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