Bangladesh vowed Monday to improve workers' rights and factory safety in the wake of a deadly garment factory collapse amid warnings that EU trade benefits might suffer if it does not make enough progress.
The Bangladeshi government aims to ensure the Asian nation is home to a garment industry, "where our workers' rights are upheld, where they work in a secure and safe environment, with decent work conditions, with proper wages", Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told reporters in Geneva.
Her comments came after her government agreed to an EU-proposed "sustainability compact" to improve labour rights and factory safety, committing to uphold union rights and to add 200 more inspectors by the end of the year, bringing the national total to 800.
The deal, which also involves the International Labour Organization, aims to avert a repeat of tragedies like the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April, which killed 1,129 people in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
"What happened in Bangladesh just over two months ago is simply unacceptable. It is our duty to change this situation and quickly," EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht told reporters.
The Bangladeshi parliament is expected to pass new legislation this month aimed at making it easier to set up unions in garment factories and compensate workers involved in accidents, and de Gucht said the first important step would be to implement the new law.
In exchange for Bangladesh's efforts, the EU committed to help care for those permanently disabled by the Rana Plaza collapse, possibly by reallocating funds from existing programmes, and extend technical assistance to improve labour standards in the country -- the world's second biggest apparel exporter after China.
De Gucht applauded Bangladesh for its commitments, but warned that the EU, which currently allows the country to export all its products except arms into the bloc duty- and quota-free, may "consider appropriate action should there be no or insufficient progress for Bangladeshi workers".
"I want to make it clear that Bangladesh ... cannot take for granted the trade preferences it currently enjoys," he said, pointing out that clothing makes up 90 percent of the country's exports to the EU, and account for some 2.5 million jobs.
Late last month, the United States withdrew trade privileges over Bangladesh's failure to protect the fundamental rights of workers.
A dent in the EU trade benefits would however be far more painful, since the US privileges excluded Bangladesh's all-important garment sector and therefore affected only 0.05 percent of Bangladeshi exports to the United States, Moni said.
She nonetheless stressed that the move by Washington "doesn't help the workers at all".
Earlier Monday, 70 top retailers promised to open their Bangladesh factories to safety inspections within nine months as part of a separate pact.
The mainly European brands will underwrite repairs and renovations if inspections reveal their factories to be unsafe, according to the legally binding agreement, signed with unions after the Rana Plaza collapse.