Fewer than 300 of Bangladesh’s 5,000 clothing factories have allowed in trade unions, as workers’ rights remain under pressure a year on from the Rana Plaza building collapse in which more than 1,100 people were killed.

Amirul Haque Amin, president of the country’s National Garment Workers’ Federation, said his union had doubled the number of factories where it operated during the past 12 months to 42, while the total number of factories with any union representation had more than doubled to about 237. However, many workers were still vulnerable to exploitation despite unprecedented international efforts in the wake of one of the world’s biggest industrial disasters.

“I think it is really hard to say that an ethical factory exists in Bangladesh at present. As a trade union we cannot say that. We can simply say that factories are moving towards better conditions,” said Mr. Amin, who took part in protests on Oxford Street in London on Thursday to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster and put pressure on companies that have yet to pay into a compensation fund for victims.

Mr. Amin said that even with a 77 per cent increase in Bangladesh’s minimum wage last year, workers were struggling to survive on 5,300 taka (£41) a month, while many factories still required improvements to bring them up to basic safety standards.

“If multinational brands really want to improve the life of the workers then they can take the initiative. If representatives of the buyers, the factories and the workers sit down together they can work out a better price and some kind of mechanism so workers can get the benefit,” Mr. Amin said.

Further evidence has emerged in an Italian documentary of poor working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. The Presa Diretta programme filmed factories working for Benetton’s Olimpias sourcing division using young workers and continuing unsafe working practices months after more than 1,100 workers were killed and 2,000 injured at Rana Plaza. Benetton is one of a number of retailers linked to Rana Plaza that have yet to pay into an international compensation fund backed by the UN’s International Labour Organisation.

The documentary makers filmed locked factory gates at two facilities where they saw Olimpias branded clothing being made. One factory owner admitted that employees could start work as young as 13 and the other said he used workers aged 15 or 16. A production manager for Olimpias was secretly filmed defending the employment of children in its factories, saying: “At least they are not on the streets.” The Olimpias representatives admitted that they continued to make orders despite knowing that few factories in the country had external fire escapes, seen as a basic safety requirement by most experts. One said: “None of the buildings here have outside fire exits. It’s not my fault.” Benetton said that comments by its employees and factory owners were “taken completely out of context and with the objective of constructing a specifically negative message about us”.

Both factories filmed by Presa Diretta were on the list of facilities supplying retailers that have signed up to a legally-binding factory safety deal, which included inspections. Benetton had signed up to the deal and admitted it had added the factories to the list, as it was legally obliged to do. It also said it had commissioned independent audits of them.

“We will move to immediately stop working with them if we find that they are not in compliance with our code of conduct,” a spokesman for the company said.

However, he added that Benetton did not recognise the facilities filmed in the documentary.

© Guardian News Service