Major retailers back factory safety accord
At least 70 families gathered at Adhar Chandra High School playground yesterday holding up photos of their dear ones -- the missing Rana Plaza victims. The High Court has directed the government to submit a list of the missing victims of the deadly April 24 collapse. Photo: Anisur Rahman
In a landmark move, six big apparel retailers, including H&M and Inditex, have agreed to sign a far-reaching and legally binding plan that requires the buyers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use in Bangladesh.
Consumer and labour groups yesterday hailed the move by Sweden-based H&M -- which is one of the largest buyers of garments from Bangladesh -- as an important step toward improving factory safety here.
They said it would increase pressure on other Western retailers and apparel brands to do likewise.
Within hours of H&M's statement, C&A of the Netherlands and Primark, a low-price British retailer, also joined in, according to The New York Times.
PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein, and German retailer Tchibo, which signed a similar pact last year, said they would adhere to the new safety accord.
The move came three weeks after the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed 1,127 workers.
The agreement calls for independent, rigorous factory safety inspections with public reports and mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by Western retailers.
It also calls for retailers to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements, and for workers and their unions to have a substantial voice in factory safety.
“It's visionary,” Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labour Rights Forum, said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg. “They've understood that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the relationship between global brands and their suppliers.”
Western retailers and international unions have been in talks about ways to secure safety upgrades to Bangladesh garment factories after a raft of industrial disasters in the Asian nation. Participants at a meeting in Germany last month set a May 15 deadline to draft an agreement and decide whether to accept the terms.
Ever since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building on April 24, H&M, Wal-Mart, Gap and other companies have faced intense pressure to sign the agreement.
“In order to make an impact and be sustainable,” the agreement “would need a broad coalition of brands,” H&M said in a statement.
The agreement committed a company to the goal of a safe and sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh “in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures,” according to the statement.
“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 the retailer.
H&M and Gap were the target of an online petition that obtained more than 900,000 signatures and was sponsored by Avaaz, a human rights group. The petition said, “Your companies and other multinationals profit from cheap labour, and can do much more to reduce the dangers of the places where your products are made.”
“H&M's decision to sign the accord is crucial,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington-based factory monitoring group backed by 175 American colleges and universities. “They are the single largest producer of apparel in Bangladesh, ahead even of Wal-Mart. This accord now has tremendous momentum.”
PVH also said yesterday that it would contribute $2.5 million to underwrite factory safety improvements as part of the new plan.
Gap has resisted signing on, objecting to its legally binding nature and saying it was already doing a lot on its own, having hired a fire inspector and promised $22 million for factory improvements.
Bangladeshi labour groups that have sifted through the Rana Plaza rubble have not found any evidence that H&M or Gap had garments made at any of the five factories in the building.
But numerous investor, religious, consumer and labour groups are pressing other companies known to have obtained apparel from the factories there -- Benetton, Cato Fashions, the Children's Place, el Corte Ingles, Loblaws and Primark – to sign on to the safety plan.
Primark, which had acknowledged that one of its suppliers had occupied the second floor of the nine-storey building, had already pledged to compensate victims who worked for its supplier and their families.
With details from The New York Times and Bloomberg.