DHAKA, Bangladesh — In the aftermath of a building collapse that killed more than 500 people, Bangladesh's garment manufacturers may face a choice of reform or perish.
The shoddily constructed building that collapsed was home to five factories that supplied clothing to retailers in Europe and the United States. The disaster has put a focus on the high human price paid when Bangladeshi government ineptitude, Western consumer apathy and global retailing's drive for the lowest cost of production intersect.
Police said Friday that more than 500 bodies have been pulled from the wreckage of the eight-story Rana Plaza building that collapsed on April 24, sparking desperate rescue efforts, a national outpouring of grief and violent street protests.
The tragedy followed the deaths of 112 people five months ago in a blaze that swept through the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Dhaka and the death of seven in a January blaze.
With three disasters in quick succession, the reputation of Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry, already notorious for its low wages and dismal safety record, has plummeted. International clothing brands and retailers that said they could ensure worker safety in developing countries through self-regulation such as factory inspections have also suffered a blow to their credibility.
Now, Bangladesh's garment manufacturers fear that a backlash has been set in motion that threatens fortunes and livelihoods in a business that employs more than 3 million people and accounts for 80 percent of the impoverished country's exports.
"It's a crucial time for us," said Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. "We are doing our best to improve the safety measures in the factories. We expect our buyers to bear with us and help us to overcome the current crisis. It's not the time to turn away from us. That will hurt the industry and many of the workers will lose jobs."
The most potent warning so far has come from the European Union, which said it could restrict Bangladesh's access to the crucial EU market if it fails to take steps to ensure that basic labor standards are enforced.
Bangladesh is a member of Europe's "Everything But Arms" program for the world's poorest nations that exempts it from quotas and tariffs on all exports to the 27-nation EU except armaments. The EU is Bangladesh's single biggest market.
"The sheer scale of this disaster and the alleged criminality around the building's construction is finally becoming clear to the world," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said in a statement Tuesday. They said they want any EU action to "incentivize" responsible management of the garment industry in Bangladesh.
The United States is also reviewing Bangladesh's preferential trade status, a lengthy process that gained urgency after the killing last year of a Bangladeshi labor rights organizer who had campaigned for years to improve factory safety. Garments are not included in the American trade preferences for Bangladesh but loss of its special market access would further taint its reputation in the United States, its second-largest export market.
As a U.S. decision nears, the building collapse gives additional momentum to members of Congress who wrote to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina to protest a climate of fear created by the killing of Aminul Islam, the labor organizer, and lobbied then-U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to speed up a review of Bangladesh's trade access following the Tazreen fire.
Signs of dissension are also emerging among clothing brands and retailers who as a group have usually sought to distance themselves from industry disasters.
The chief executive of Canada's Loblaw Inc., which owns the Joe Fresh clothing line that was being made in the collapsed building, decried the response of "deafening silence" from what he said were more than two dozen other international retailers who used garment factories in the building.
Following the Tazreen fire where Walt Disney Co. branded clothing was found, the company in March added Bangladesh to a list of countries where it prohibits any of its clothing or merchandize from being produced.
The Bangladeshi garment association met this week with representatives of 40 garment buyers including H&M, J.C. Penney, Gap, Nike, Li & Fung and Tesco. It said the companies have doubts about whether the industry can meet their production deadlines because of the disasters and political turmoil.