May 14, 2013

Pact aims for safety in Bangladesh

Major retailers sign on to the first-of-its-kind agreement ahead of a deadline.

By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO/The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Some of the world's largest retailers have agreed to a first-of-its-kind pact to improve safety at some of Bangladesh's garment factories following a building collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers in the country last month.

click image to enlarge

A Bangladeshi rescue worker walks at the site where a garment factory building collapsed on April 24 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Monday. Nearly three weeks after the building collapse, the search for the dead ended Monday at the site of the worst disaster in the history of the global garment industry.

The Associated Press

Reshma Begum
click image to enlarge

Reshma Begum

Rescued woman done with garment factories

The Associated Press

SAVAR, Bangladesh - The 19-year-old seamstress who spent 17 days trapped in the rubble of a collapsed factory building said Monday that she will never again work in a Bangladesh garment factory.

Reshma Begum was pulled in remarkably good shape from the wreckage of the eight-story Rana Plaza building Friday.

On the morning of April 24, she said, she heard there were cracks in the building and saw co-workers, mainly men, refusing to enter. The managers reassured them: "There is no problem. You do your work," she said.

Soon after, the building crashed down around her.

"When it happened I fell down and was injured in the head heavily. Then I found myself in darkness," she said. She tried to crawl to safety, but could not find a way out, she said.

She survived on four packets of cookies she had with her and some water.

The move comes just days shy of a deadline imposed by workers' rights groups that said they would hold street protests and otherwise increase pressure on clothing brands that did not sign the agreement by Wednesday.

H&M, a trendy Swedish chain that's the largest clothing buyer in Bangladesh, said Monday that it would sign a five-year, legally binding factory safety contract. Within hours, C&A of the Netherlands, British retailers Tesco and Primark, and Spain's Inditex, owner of the Zara chain, followed.

The agreement requires that the companies conduct independent safety inspections, make their reports on factory conditions public and cover the costs for needed repairs. It also calls for them to pay up to $500,000 annually toward the effort, to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make safety upgrades and to allow workers and their unions to have a voice in factory safety.

"We can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes," Helena Hermersson, an H&M spokeswoman, said in a statement Monday.

The companies that agreed to the pact Monday join two other retailers that signed the contract last year: PVH, which makes clothes under the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod labels, and German retailer Tchibo. The agreement has since been expanded to five years from two.

Among the holdouts, Walmart, the second-largest clothing buyer in Bangladesh, said through spokesman Kevin Gardner that it had nothing to announce Monday. And Gap, which had been close to signing the agreement last year, said Monday that the pact is "within reach," but the company is concerned about the possible legal liability involved.

Labor groups applauded the retailers that signed the pact Monday. They say the agreement goes a long way toward improving working conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry, which long has been known to be dangerous.

Based on the seven companies that plan to participate in the pact, between 500 and 1,000 of the 5,000 Bangladesh factories will be covered, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a group that had been one of the organizations pushing for the agreement.

"This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh," he said.

The agreement comes as the working conditions of Bangladesh's garment industry have come under increased scrutiny. Since 2005, at least 1,800 workers have been killed in the Bangladeshi garment industry in factory fires and building collapses, according to research by the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum.

The two latest tragedies in the country's garment industry have raised alarm. The building collapse on April 24 was the industry's worst disaster in history. And it came months after a fire in another garment factory in Bangladesh in November killed 112 workers.

After the latest tragedy, Walt Disney Co. announced that it is stopping production of its branded goods in Bangladesh. But most retailers have vowed to stay and promised to work for change. H&M and Walmart both have said they have no plans to leave. Other big chains such as The Children's Place, Mango, J.C. Penney, Gap, Benetton and Sears have said the same.

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