HANOI - From factory fires to slave labor, the growth of mass manufacturing in South East Asia has not been problem-free, but having shed its "sweatshop" reputation, the region could have lessons for Bangladesh.
The building collapse near Dhaka last week that left 550 dead and missing has unleashed global consternation over conditions in the factories that produce fast fashion -- cheap, catwalk-inspired clothes -- for top global brands.
Amid talk of consumer boycotts, Bangladesh needs to reform its industry before fashionistas wonder "if they should be wearing blood-stained dresses", Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity told AFP.
Communist Vietnam -- which produces clothes for disposable fashion industry giants Zara, Mango and H&M -- shows it is possible to have "extremely strong" labor laws, fair wages and a healthy garment industry, experts say.
"It is not a race to the bottom here," Tara Rangarajan, program manager of the International Labour Organisation's Better Work project in Vietnam, told AFP.
"Sweatshops are part of a short term, immediate payback, low cost strategy. (Vietnam wants to) be competitive in the long term on something besides just cheap labor," so it is trying to enforce and improve its laws, she added.
Buyers are attracted to Vietnam -- where wages are some three times higher than Bangladesh -- if "they have reputations they are trying to maintain", she added.
Garment exports, worth $3.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, were up 18.3 percent year on year. The government's "number one priority" is boosting technology, Vietnamese legal expert Nguyen Dinh Huan told AFP.
In contrast, Bangladesh has "specialised in low cost production" and embraced the sweatshop model rather than investing in technology and upgrading, said Nayla Ajaltouni coordinator of the Collectif Ethique sur l'etiquette.
"The industry has grown very quickly, (which) is why we're seeing this concentration of chronic health and safety issues," she told AFP.
Outrage over the recent building collapse could prove a turning point, she said. Minimum wages were increased in Bangladesh in 2011 "not for philanthropic reasons but because protests were starting to disturb the supply chain".
"It is a bit cynical but this disaster is also a critical point where brands can be pushed to move forward -- by the media, by citizens," she added.
In Thailand, standards in factories improved significantly after a fire at a toy factory killed 188 people in 1993, although activists say conditions particularly in smaller factories can still be problematic.
In Cambodia, where the garment industry developed in the 1990s, avoiding the "sweatshop" label was a conscious strategy, with the country embracing an ILO Better Factories program -- which union leaders say has only been minimally effective.
Several thousands of garment workers marched in the capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday to mark May Day and demand better pay and working conditions.
But Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of the Exporters Association of Bangladesh, said that Bangladesh "already has world class factories... some buyers just avoid placing orders there to maximise their profits".
The trouble is "consumers are never really presented the real relationship between cheap clothes and labour abuses and health and safety standards, because of marketing, branding," said Anne Elizabeth Moore, an award-winning author.
"In this set-up, buyers really aren't motivated to care about labour issues unless they're going for the altruism dollar, which is a long shot," Moore, who has written extensively on the global garment industry, told AFP.
But attention on the recent accident in Bangladesh "is pressuring all companies, whether they were in that building or not, to tighten their supply chain -- which is good," said one Hong Kong-based manager with a global fashion brand who did not want to be named as her company policy bars her from talking to the media.
"But ultimately buyers cannot go in and change the system in Bangladesh. (The government) needs to take responsibility," the manager added, pointing out that unlike Vietnam, Dhaka neither imposes a standard annual minimum wage increase nor allows garment workers to unionise.
Unless standards improve, Dhaka also needs to realise that its cash-cow industry -- which accounts for some 80 percent of export earnings -- is at risk, she said.
"A lot of buyers are looking into Myanmar, Kenya, Ethiopia. They don't see Bangladesh as a long term hub anymore... there are too many problems."
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