Safety lacking after Bangladesh factory disaster: US

In this photograph taken on April 25, 2013, Bangladeshi volunteers and rescue workers gather at the scene after the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka.

WASHINGTON - A year after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building left more than 1,100 dead, Washington says it remains concerned about worker safety and rights in Bangladesh.

In a briefing for journalists, a group of senior US officials said progress had been made getting the government in Dhaka to crack down on dangerous practices and give millions of workers in the country more power to protect themselves.

But the country still has a ways to go, they said, after the deadliest textile factory disaster in history left 1,135 dead on April 24 last year.

The poorly built nine-story Rana Plaza outside Dhaka was a warren of shops producing garments for export, including for major international brands like Italy's Benetton, Britain's Primark and Spain's Mango.

Its collapse came six months after a fire at the Tazreen garment factory killed 111, further highlighting the deep safety issues in the country's US$20 billion (S$25 billion) clothing industry.

"We have seen progress in many areas, to include increased registration of unions, harmonized fire and structural safety standards, (and) an increased hiring of inspectors" whose reports are publicly accessible, said one US official speaking on the basis of anonymity.

"We still have concerns however about labour rights and workplace safety in Bangladesh and there's still a lot of work to be done, particularly on the legal side of things."

The official said that following the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen fire, the issue of safety "has really moved to the centre stage of our relationship. It's perhaps our strongest priority with regards to Bangladesh currently."

To put pressure on the Bangladesh government to act on worker safety, last June Washington cut the country's "GSP" trade privileges.

Garments were not covered under the GSP programme anyway, and so the actual economic impact on Bangladesh was minimal, admitted a second US official.

Even so, the official said, they felt the pressure.

"It definitely sent a strong message to the government.... It's very clear that they got that message." The officials said they had reviewed the country's progress late last year but did not find it enough to reinstate GSP privileges, which cut tariffs on imports from Bangladesh.

Another review will be completed by June.

Last week Bangladesh police said they will press murder charges against the owner of Rana Plaza.

Sohel Rana was one of around 40 people who would be charged in connection with the disaster, said lead investigator Bijoy Krishna Kar.