Under mounting pressure to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories, several of the world’s largest apparel companies agreed on Monday to a landmark plan to help pay for fire safety and building improvements after the collapse last month of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which killed more than 1,100 people.
The agreement, hailed by labour and consumer groups as a major breakthrough, came as the government also took steps to respond to the April 24 disaster at Rana Plaza outside Dhaka. In the last two days, the government has pledged to raise wages for garment workers and change labour laws to make it easier to form trade unions.
The parallel announcements by global brands and Dhaka were a significant shift: For years, Bangladesh has seen some of the worst practices in the global garment industry. Wages are the lowest in the world, starting at roughly $37 a month. Factory conditions are often unsafe.
Yet global brands have often sought to deflect any direct responsibility for the problems, while the government has often been tepid in protecting worker rights.
But the Rana Plaza disaster, the deadliest in the garment industry’s history, has created tremendous pressure for change. On Monday morning, the Swedish retail giant H&M and Inditex, owner of the popular Zara chain, endorsed the safety plan. Within hours, the large Dutch retailer C&A also joined the agreement, as did the low-cost British retailer Primark.
H&M is the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh, and its endorsement was seen as influential to other brands. The agreement calls for independent, rigorous factory safety inspections with public accountability and mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by Western retailers. It also enhances the roles played by workers and unions to insure factory safety.
Labour groups and others were already trying to pressure other big brands, including WalMart and Gap, to sign onto the agreement. “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,” said Philip J. Jennings, the general secretary of the UNI Global Union, the international association of trade unions. “This is black and white, life and death.”
Gap has been the target of an online petition that obtained more than 900,000 signatures in support of the agreement.
But the company has resisted signing on, objecting to the agreement’s legally binding nature and arguing that it had already hired a fire inspector and promised $22 million in loans for factory improvements.
PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod, announced it would sign the deal, an expanded version of a proposal that PVH had already signed. The new plan lasts five years, while the previous one was to last only two.
PVH also announced on Monday that it would contribute $2.5 million to underwrite factory safety improvements as part of the new plan. — New York Times News Service