A far-reaching new safety code is being drawn up for retailers that source from Bangladesh after the fatal factory collapse there that killed more than 400 people.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which is backed by retailers including Asda, Asos, Debenhams and Primark, has held an emergency meeting with relevant parties to draw up universal safety standards for trading with companies in Bangladesh. They will include fire and building safety for the first time.

ETI director Peter McAllister said the organisation aims to have an agreed set of safety principles for Bangladeshi supply by May 15 and is urging retailers and brands to sign up.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which housed five clothing factories that supplied retailers including Primark, Bonmarché and Canadian retailer Joe Fresh, and also had links to Benetton, was the fourth fatal factory accident in Bangladesh in the past eight years.

ETI members sourcing from Bangladesh, alongside member trade unions and NGOs, will support the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Bangladesh to continue to bring local stakeholders together for the effective implementation of the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety.

They will also commit to improving the infrastructure, policy, skills and systems in factories to reach an agreed minimum standard of fire and building safety for factories in the sector. 

“This is the final straw,” said McAllister. “A lot of effort is going into getting a co-ordinated international approach. We need to make a clear statement to drive change.

“If we look back in two to three years and another tragedy happens – which undoubtedly will happen – and we can’t say we’ve done all that we can to change this, it will be a sad indictment of our industry.”

The European Union is also considering measures to restrict Bangladesh’s trade privileges in order to spur improved safety standards. The country has preferential access to EU markets for its garments.

Separately, representatives of 45 companies including H&M, Marks & Spencer and Tesco met the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in Dhaka to discuss worker and plant safety.

Primark reacted quickly to the tragedy and led a raft of retailers that had used the collapsed factories in offering financial support to the victims. Primark’s action was praised by the Bangladeshi High Commissioner to London, Mohamed Mijarul Quayes.

Matalan, which previously used a factory in Rana Plaza, also offered financial help, along with Loblaws, owner of Joe Fresh.

It is understood building owner Mohammed Sohel Rana, who was arrested over the weekend, had approval to construct a five-floor building but added an extra three.

Building integrity is not generally part of the auditing process on factories but Primark wants that reviewed. But multiple occupancy is likely to complicate the issue.

A Bonmarché spokeswoman said: “While we have always implemented processes in line with or exceeding industry requirements and standards, there are lessons to be learned from this event across the retail sector. We will be reviewing our standards and we will be responding to the emerging information from Bangladesh.”