HONGKONG entrepreneurs' attitudes to cheap foreign labour as an expendable commodity will lead to more tragic accidents, unionists have warned. ''This fire is symptomatic of the common Hongkong attitude to cheap labour,'' said Asian Migrant Centre counsellor, Ms Somkid Mahissya, referring to the Bangkok factory fire that killed more than 240 people on Monday. ''Many people here believe that it doesn't matter how they treat their foreign employees. It happens with their domestic workers, it happened with the victims of the fire, and it will happen again.'' In the search for cheap labour and land, manufacturers have established factories throughout the region, particularly in Thailand, the Philippines, southern China and Indonesia, catering for export markets in western Europe and the United States. ''If business people don't care, then there have to be laws and guidelines to force them to pay attention,'' said Miss Somkid. ''If we are not careful then that factory will start up again, perhaps in another country or under a different name, but still making toys at costs that are so low it becomes dangerous.'' The vice-chairman of the Hongkong Chamber of Commerce, Mr William Fung Kwok-lun, denied that local companies had a record of being careless with their overseas manual workers. ''I am very sad and surprised at what has happened. I really believe that Hongkong firms have tended to keep work and safety standards high. We often even set the pace in terms of better factories in poorer parts of the world,'' he said. ''My feeling is that in this case, [Hongkong shareholders] Kader only had a 40 per cent shareholding, so probably left the day-to-day running of the factory to the local Thai management. Perhaps the local authorities did not enforce the regulations.'' He said he did not believe it would be feasible to follow a recent suggestion by trades unionists that the Chamber of Commerce should persuade its members to comply with codes of practice recommended by the United Nations in their foreign ventures. ''Companies should always comply with local regulations and try to lead the way in taking them further,'' he said. The lobby of the Thai Consulate-General in Hongkong was packed yesterday with about 40 representatives of 17 local labour organisations, including the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), the Asian Migrant Centre, the Young Christian Workers Movement and the Asian Domestic Workers Union. They were petitioning for a full independent inquiry into Monday's fire and urged Thailand to improve the safety conditions in all its factories. Thai Consul Mr Prasas Prasasvinitchai said: ''We have a comprehensive set of rules about fire safety. We are trying to enforce them, but as in any country, implementation can be a problem. According to the chief executive of the CTU, Mr Lee Cheuk-yan, a lengthy meeting with consulate officials had been disappointing. ''They refused to agree to an independent inquiry,'' he said. Mr Lee said the government report was due to be completed within three weeks. ''And when we read that, we will appeal to the Tings [owners of Kader Holdings] to inform the Hongkong people how they will address their management problem, and how they will compensate for all the deaths and injuries,'' he said. One labour activitist Mr Nikhom Chandaravirthoon said there were more than 90,000 work-related injuries reported and undoubtedly many more not recorded. Woman's rights activist Ms Thanavadee Thajeen said: ''Many Thai women are unskilled, impoverished and illiterate. They are simply fodder for the factory owners.'' The Industrial factory Department has now ordered all garment, toy, precious stone cutting and integrated circuit factories with more than two stories or employing more than 200 workers to construct external fire escapes. No explanation has been forthcoming as to why external fire escapes have not been a requirement before now. Local administration officials said yesterday that guards who locked the doors to prevent workers from leaving were themselves trapped when the doors buckled under the intense heat.