A disaster that is increasing in scale every day: the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the city of Savar in Bangladesh, which according to the most recent reports has cost more than 500 lives. The count started, more than a week ago, at 87 dead and 1,000 injured. Another ominous figure now making the rounds is the number of people missing: 1,000, although this includes double counts.

The eight-storey complex, three of which were illegally added, housed different businesses, including a textile factory. The employees had told their boss about cracks in the walls, but he forced them to show up for work – otherwise he would withhold part of their meagre wages.

Importers have responsibility

The owner of the building was arrested. This is only right as he has primary responsibility, but this is far from the end of the matter. For example, it would have been a good deal better if the authorities had taken preventative action to deal with the precarious state of the complex. And not just there, but elsewhere in the country too, as the collapse of this building was not an isolated incident. Abominable working conditions all too often result in victims in Bangladesh.

The drama has a flipside – the price of clothing in some western shops. This means T-shirts or bikinis that only cost a few euros. This should make the consumer think, but responsibility cannot be passed on to the consumer. Rather, it lies with the importers [such as Mango and Benetton], who should better inform themselves as to the conditions in which their clothing is manufactured.

The European Union is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. The threat by foreign policy chief [Catherine] Ashton and Trade Commissioner [Karel] De Gucht this week in a statement might help. They warned Bangladesh that it may lose the advantages which it enjoys as a developing country, such as the exemption from import duties in the EU.

Income threat for Bangladesh

The problem with this kind of measure, and certainly with a boycott, is that it could cause Bangladesh to lose its most important source of income. In addition, the work will then be continued in another poor country, under the same, if not worse, conditions.

The EU rightly asks Bangladesh to comply with the internationally recognised standards of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But this must also be demanded of other countries. In less diplomatic wording the angry workers who took to the streets in Bangladesh are demanding the same. It is the Bangladeshi authorities who must put an end to these scandals.