LONDON (Reuters) - Major western clothing retailers squeezing Asian suppliers and a flawed approach to ensuring even basic working standards are fuelling conditions for tragedies like the latest factory collapse in Bangladesh, NGOs said on Thursday.
At least 260 people, mainly female workers, were killed and more than 1,000 were injured when the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building in Savar, 30 km (20 miles) outside the capital Dhaka, collapsed on Wednesday.
"What we're saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is automatically leading towards these types of disasters," John Hilary, executive director at British charity War on Want, told Reuters.
He said western clothing retailers' desire to undercut rivals has translated into increasing pressure on foreign suppliers to reduce costs.
"If you've got that, then it's absolutely clear that you're not going to be able to have the right kind of building regulations, health and safety, fire safety. Those things will become more and more impossible as the cost price goes down."
Hilary said the push for lower costs inevitably led to factories cutting corners. "As a result of that, we see the sort of disaster that happened yesterday," he said.
War on Want and its partner in Bangladesh, the National Garment Workers' Federation, called on major international buyers to be held to account.
"This negligence must stop. The deaths of these workers could have been avoided if multinational corporations, governments and factory owners took workers' protection seriously," NGWF president, Amirul Haque Amin, said in a statement.
Gareth Price-Jones, Bangladesh country director of British charity Oxfam, said western companies had not done enough.
"Western buyers could be doing much, much more, and they have a moral responsibility to do so," he told Reuters. "Western buyers really need to press for decent wages and safe working conditions."
He said Bangladeshi building regulations were not robust enough for construction in an earthquake zone and were, in any case, frequently ignored.
Around 4,500 Bangladeshi factories produce clothes for many of the world's major brands, employing 4 million workers and generating 80 percent of Bangladesh's $24 billion annual exports, making it the world's No. 2 apparel exporter behind China.
But with wages as low as $37 a month for some workers toiling for 10-15 hours a day, and increasing publicity about unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, some retailers were getting worried about their reputation.
A lot have introduced corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, where they carry out factory audits and inspections and talk to employees about worker conditions.
But War on Want says the CSR processes are often flawed.
"What happens is the workers are trained in what to say, the factories present favourable books and keep back the real books," Hilary said, noting that in countries like China there were courses to coach factories on how to pass an audit without telling the truth.
The Savar disaster came five months after Bangladesh's worst factory fire, which killed 112 people, and another incident at a factory in January in which seven died.
The Ethical Trading Initiative, an umbrella organisation that brings NGOs, unions and brands together to try to improve working conditions, said the latest tragedy demonstrated the chronic widespread problems in the sector that affect the most basic of workers' rights.
"These incidents all serve as yet another call to action for the Bangladesh industry, government, retailers, worker representatives and NGOs to work together, to raise workplace safety standards across the country's garment sector," it said.
In Washington, the Asia advocate for the U.S. NGO Human Rights Watch said weak protection of labour rights contributed to the tragedy at Rana Plaza, where none of the factories are unionized.
"Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning," said John Sifton.
"The right to organise a union in Bangladesh is not just a matter of getting fair wages, it's a matter of saving lives," he said.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters that labour rights in Bangladesh, as well as work conditions, were "something that we've raised in the human rights report, we raised in our bilateral dialogue, certainly directly with the government from our embassy."
The State Department's annual human rights report for 2012, published on April 19, said trade unions in Bangladesh were able to conduct collective bargaining, "but government action made it nearly impossible to form new trade unions in many sectors, for example, in the ready-made garment and shrimp industries."
Reporting by James Davey, Neil Maidment, and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Will Waterman and Mohammad Zargham