Bangladesh: Stores to act over textile worker safety

Bangladeshi men watch rescue operations at the site of a building that collapsed. Picture: AP
Bangladeshi men watch rescue operations at the site of a building that collapsed. Picture: AP
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SOME of the biggest names on the UK high street will sign up tomorrow to an inter­national agreement aimed at providing minimum safety standards for textile workers in Bangladesh, in the wake of the catastrophic factory collapse which left more than 1,100 people dead.

Tesco, Primark, H&M, C&A and Inditex – which owns the Zara chain – have joined PVH, the US company behind brands including Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and German firm Tchibo to add their names.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh sets out a series of standards aimed at making the industry safe and sustainable for workers.

However, The Scotsman understands a string of other major retailers, including Gap and Asda’s parent company Walmart, have yet to pledge their support for the legally binding agreement, despite having been involved in talks with the unions behind the accord.

Yesterday, Bangladeshi authorities called off the search for bodies in the ruins of the garment factory, which collapsed at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka almost three weeks ago.

The death toll now stands at 1,127 people, making it the worst industrial loss of life since the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India.

Reshma Begum, the 19-year-old seamstress who last week was pulled alive from the wreckage 17 days after the disaster, said yesterday that on the morning of the collapse she heard there were cracks in the building and saw co-workers refusing to enter.

The accord, which will be binding for a five-year period and which has been drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions, will see companies agree to pay a “substantial” sum to
establish structures that will maintain building and fire safety in factories and work with international unions to create a “sustainable” industry for Bangladeshi workers.

It will also allow workers to refuse to enter a place of work they consider dangerous – which previously would have cost them three days’ pay for every day missed – and would
establish an independent inspectorate to oversee factories, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities.

Minimum wages for garment workers are among the lowest in the world at 3,000 takas (£25) a month, about a third of theaccepted living wage.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building focused world attention on the hazardous conditions in Bangladesh’s low-cost garment industry and strengthened pressure for reforms.

Yesterday, the country’s government said it would begin allowing garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners.

The decision came a day after the government announced a plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers. The
building housed five garment factories.

Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M, said the Swedish company was playing an active role in improving fire safety in Bangladeshi garment factories, including introducing in 2011 an education to increase fire safety awareness among suppliers and their employees.

A spokesman for Primark said: “The company has consistently believed that the collaborative approach facilitated through this agreement was the most likely initiative to bring effective and sustainable change for the better to the Bangladeshi garment industry.”

Kevin Grace, group commercial director at Tesco, said: “We have a long list of checks we make, but improvement is a constant process, so we have consistently strengthened our approach whenever we can.

“Today, we are announcing that we will support the multi-stakeholder Accord on Fire
and Building Safety, which
aims to ensure good practice across the industry’s 5,000-plus factories.”

Ruth Tanner, campaigns and policy director at the charity War on Want, said: “This is a crucial victory in the fight for companies to take responsibility for the workers who make our clothes.”

Jyrki Raina, general secretary of union IndustriALL, praised the brands for their involvement in the agreement.

He added: “With this accord, we will make sure the price paid by workers at Rana Plaza in the biggest single act of industrial homicide will not be forgotten.”

Yesterday, Bangladeshi officials said the search for bodies from the collapse on 24 April had been called off.

“The rescuers have reached the basement where the chances of finding more dead bodies are very low,” said a spokesman.

A spokeswoman for Walmart would not comment on whether the company would sign up to the agreement tomorrow.

She said: “At Walmart, our goal is to positively impact
global supply chain practices, both by raising our own standards and by partnering with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry.”

No-one from Gap responded to The Scotsman’s inquiries.