The US Ambassador to Bangladesh has warned apparel buyers and manufacturers that a return to "business as usual" after the factory fire that killed more than 110 people at the end of last month "could seriously jeopardise the future of Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry."

Speaking in the capital Dhaka yesterday (5 December), Dan Mozena called on the industry to ensure that the fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in Ashulia ushers in "a new era in Bangladesh of improved workplace safety, better working conditions, a stronger voice for labour, and stronger cooperation among owners, government and workers."

If they succeed, then "Brand Bangladesh becomes a preferred brand, a brand associated with safe, productive factories, a brand sought by both buyers and consumers."

But a failure to face up to workplace conditions and labour rights - coupled with the negative headlines already seen by consumers around the world -  "could seriously threaten the market for Bangladeshi ready-made garments in America and elsewhere."

Mozena was speaking at an International Product Safety and Environmental Compliance Conference organised by the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA).

Also at the event, Nate Herman, AAFA vice president of international trade told just-style he believed US buyers would "come to Bangladesh in a bigger way" if the country was able to apply the lessons learned from the Ashulia tragedy.

Steps to establish a sustainable factory model in Bangladesh are already underway by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which is preparing to launch its Better Work programme in the country.

Among measures needed to improve fire safety within its apparel industry are the installation of emergency stairwells, sprinkler systems with a dedicated water supply, public address systems to help factory evacuation, emergency lighting systems, fire extinguishers and training on how to use them.  

And action should also be taken to support workers, such as enabling them to express themselves freely and organise into unions to work with management on factory safety.

Ambassador Mozena believes Bangladesh has the potential to become an Asian Tiger, the world's number one exporter of ready-made garments, and a huge player in the global market for leather and other footwear.

But only if the factory owners, the employers, the buyers, and the government apply the lessons learned from the Ashulia tragedy.

He also drew parallels with America's history, and a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 people.

This proved the catalyst to improve working conditions in the US garment industry, from stronger worker protections and the institutions to enforce them, to workers' right to organise and bargain collectively.