EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht warned Bangladesh and the apparel industry that the EU was "considering" a rethink of duty-free and quota-free access for exports from Bangladesh into Europe.
Sixty percent of Bangladesh's apparel exports go to Europe, often for sale in chic retail outlets. Bangladesh's low-wage garment industry earns the South Asian nation $20 billion (15 billion euros) a year, making it the second-largest garment producer after China.
"The EU calls upon the Bangladeshi authorities to act immediately to ensure that factories across the country comply with international labor standards," the bloc's commissioners said, while offering EU safety advice.
May Day protests over collapse
May Day protests in Bangladesh drew more than 10,000 protestors in Dhaka on Wednesday, according to police. Some protestors demanded the execution of factory bosses over the deaths of more than 400 people in last week's collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza complex at Savar on Dhaka's outskirts.
It housed five separate garment factories as well as a bank and shops.
In their joint statement, Ashton and de Gucht also said they were deeply saddened by the "terrible loss of life" at Savar, particularly because it followed the fire at Dhaka's Tazreen Fashion factory with the loss of 112 lives in November.
"The sheer scale of this disaster and the alleged criminality around the building's construction is finally becoming clear to the world," they said, referring to Savar.
Global retailers react
Their statement followed a meeting on Monday of representatives of international retailers with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Outlets including Gap Inc, H&M, Wal-Mart and Primark face mounting questions in home markets over safety for mainly low-paid female workers in Asian countries.
"International brands must take responsibility for what has happened there," said Laila Blanch from anti-poverty group War on Want.
"They outsourced the production to countries such as Bangladesh and China because of the lowest wages in the world," she said, accusing them of ignoring "very poor health and safety standards".
Ineke Zeldenrust from Clean Clothes Campaign said "workers need a structural solution, not a quick fix."
Aid agency Oxfam welcomed the offer by retailers Britain's low-cost retailer Primark and Canada's Loblaw, which were reportedly supplied from the collapsed complex, to compensate victims.
"Other companies who had premises in the building should follow their example," said Oxfam's Bangladesh country director Gareth Price.
Distraught relatives keep watch
On Wednesday, heavy machinery cleared concrete and debris at Savar, while officials said the toll had climbed to 413 killed, with more than 2,400 people injured. Distraught relatives of an estimated 600 victims still thought missing kept vigil at the disaster site.
Eight people have so far been arrested over the collapse. Those detained include the building's main owner as well as engineers who had given an all-clear after cracks emerged before the collapse.
The building, erected on swampy ground, was completed in 2006. A factory collapse in Savar killed 64 people in 2005, and in 2006 at least 22 people were killed when a building collapsed in Dhaka.
ipj/dr (dpa, AFP, Reuters)