Apparel giants back safety plan in Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi family member cries as she holds up the portrait of her missing relative, believed to be trapped in the rubble of an eight-storey building collapse in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on May 11, 2013. Getty Images

(MoneyWatch) After a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in April and killed more than 1,100 workers, big retailers are pledging to fund improvements to the safety systems in the plants they use in the country.

Companies joining the plan include Sweden's H&M; C&A of The Netherlands; Spain's Inditex, owner of the Zara chain; the U.K.'s Primark and Tesco; and Germany's Tchibo. PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, IZOD and other brands, also agreed to join the deal after endorsing an earlier proposal to enhance the safety of factories in Bangladesh.

"Fire and building safety are extremely important issues for us and we put a lot of effort and resources within this area," said Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M, in a statement. "H&M has for many years taken the lead to improve and secure the safety of the workers in the garment industry. With this commitment we can now influence even more in this issue." 

Under the legally binding agreement, which will be in force for five years, a task force will be created to implement a fire and building safety program in Bangladesh that conforms with international workplace safety standards and that is overseen by union, company and other officials. Measures include establishing factory health and safety committees, reviewing building regulations and developing a system for workers to report health and safety risks.

PVH said it it will commit up to $2.5 million to finance the safety program.

The retail giants faced pressure from global and Bangladeshi labor unions and from consumer advocates to take immediate steps to avert future catastrophes in Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry. The death toll in the April 24 collapse in Rana Plaza, on the outskirts of Dhaka, has risen to 1,127. Bangladeshi officials on Monday officially ended the rescue operation to find survivors in the collapse, according to The Associated Press.

At least 1,800 garment industry workers have died in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh since 2005, according to International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group. Bangladesh has an estimated 4,000 garment factories, which together account for roughly 80 percent of the country's exports. Most of the products are shipped to the U.S. and Europe.

"We welcome the decision of H&M, Inditex, C&A, Primark and Tesco to sign, and we urge other retailers to follow suit immediately," said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, a labor group that had coordinated negotiations with retailers over the safety pact, in a statement. "We call on these companies to do the right thing on behalf of the more than 1,250 textile workers killed in Bangladesh factory disasters in the last six months, including Rana Plaza where the tragedy is still unfolding. This is black and white, life and death."

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