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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is launching a $25 million project to improve safety conditions for workers in Bangladesh's booming and unregulated garment manufacturing sector, the ILO's deputy director general said on Tuesday.
The project - which will focus on inspecting conditions in thousands of apparel factories - follows a series of disastrous accidents in Bangladeshi factories, including a building collapse which killed over 1,100 garment workers in April.
"It is very clear from what has happened of late that the priority is to have all factories inspected," ILO Deputy Director General Gilbert Houngbo told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"There are 3,500 active factories and they need to be inspected to ensure that they are structurally safe, as well as from the point of health and fire risk standards," he said, speaking by phone from Dhaka ahead of the project's launch.
The garment sector is a vital one for Bangladesh, and its low wages and duty-free access to Western markets have helped make the impoverished South Asian nation the world's second-largest clothing exporter after China.
It employs four million people, mostly women, and generates $20 billion annually - 80 percent of Bangladesh's export earnings.
Recent industrial accidents in the sector have highlighted its dismal safety standards - shoddy construction, overcrowded factory floors, poor electrical fittings and lack of escape routes.
Earlier this month, nine people were killed and about 50 workers injured by a fire which originated in the knitting section of a garment factory.
Such incidents have led to global pressure on the government, factory owners and the global brands that use the factories to reform the industry by raising wages and improving safety and working conditions.
Houngbo said the ILO initiative joins two others - the Accord which represents many European retailers, and the Alliance, signed by North American brands which aim to put in place independent inspections of their supplying factories.
Retailers include H&M, GAP, Walmart and Primark.
"We first of all need to make sure that we are all using the same standards of inspections and have a common set of agreed codes of inspection," said Houngbo.
"It will take months to have all those factories inspected and we will have to recruit international experts to help as the local capacity won't be sufficient."
Employers whose factories do not meet the standards may face closure, he said, adding that the loss of jobs was the last thing anyone wanted and the focus was more to help owners renovate their factories.
"While I don't hope for it, I will not be surprised if some factories may just have to be closed down," the ILO official said.
Bangladeshi factory owners say they want to reach the standard set but cannot afford it. Houngbo said details had not yet been worked out of what, if any, support could be provided to them.
"You can speculate but there can be no concrete action until you do the assessments, so that's why we want to move as fast as possible in the first phase to have the inspections done," he said.
Workers say that while better safety standards are essential, many of them are equally worried about their low wages. A wave of pay strikes last month hit nearly a fifth of the country's garment workshops.
The government is currently holding talks with labour groups and factory owners on a new minimum wage for the garment sector. The current minimum of $38 a month is half what Cambodian garment workers earn.
Factory owners in Bangladesh are pencilling in an increase in the minimum wage of about 50 to 80 percent and will ask retailers to pay more to defray the cost, though it is not certain they will agree.
Houngbo said the ILO will also consider helping the Bangladeshi government to enforce a new labour law which boosts workers' rights, including giving them the freedom to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Approved in July, the law also allows for a central fund to improve workers' living standards and a requirement for 5 percent of annual profits to be deposited in employee welfare funds.
Houngbo said the initiative would also look at the rehabilitation and skills training for victims of industrial accidents.
"Those workers who have survived, we thank God for that. But they have gone through a lot - some have had limbs amputated, others are traumatised and need help to rebuild their lives," he said.