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Bangladesh bosses, labour hail retailers' safety pledge

Plans by foreign retailers to improve shocking safety standards welcomed by labour activists in Bangladesh following deadly building collapse

AFP , Wednesday 15 May 2013
Bangladesh army soldiers, police personnel and firefighters gather at the wreckage of a Bangladeshi garment factory building to offer prayers for the souls of the 1,127 people who died in the structure’s collapse last month, in Savar, Bangladesh, Tuesday, May 14, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Bangladesh labour activists and manufacturers Wednesday welcomed plans by foreign retailers to improve shocking safety standards at garment factories after a disaster which killed over 1,100 workers.

The retailers' promise followed last month's collapse of a nine-storey factory complex outside Dhaka that killed 1,127 people in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

Labour activists have campaigned for years for a Western retailer-led drive to improve factories where workers toil long hours in sweatshop conditions for paltry pay.

The retailers' commitment represents a "huge victory", said Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity.

The agreement, backed by a Europe-based labour coalition called IndustriALL, is "going to benefit each and every garment worker", he said.

Top global brands including Benetton, Carrefour and Marks & Spencer joined clothing giants Inditex of Spain and H&M of Sweden on Tuesday in signing on for the deal to improve fire and building safety to avert future tragedies.

Italy's Benetton, along with Spanish company Mango and British retailer Primark, had placed orders with plants based in the Rana Plaza complex which after the cave-in was found to have seriously violated construction laws.

"We welcome this agreement," said Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association which represents 4,500 apparel factories.

"If they come forward and help repair, retro-fit or strengthen our factories it's good for all of us. It's a reflection of their long-term commitment to Bangladesh," Islam told AFP.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest apparel maker and the $20 billion industry accounted for up to 80 percent of annual exports last year, but its factories have a shocking safety record,

The agreement, due to be formally signed in coming days, commits retailers to have independent building and fire safety inspections and pay for repairs.

The full list of signatories has yet to be revealed.

But US-based PVH, owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands, and Germany's Tchibo were among the first to support it, according to anti-sweatshop network The Clean Clothes Campaign.

Islam said manufacturers also welcomed a move by US retail giant Walmart to conduct safety inspections at all 279 of its Bangladesh suppliers. It has so far refused to sign on to the safety plan accepted by the European retailers.

Walmart has also not yet said that it will pay for safety improvements -- a key plank of the safety agreement endorsed by the European firms.

There was no immediate government reaction but it has already agreed to an International Labour Organisation request to ensure greater safety in factories by tightening inspections and regulations.

Labour activist Akter said retailers who fail to sign up to the safety deal "send a wrong message to their consumers that they don't really care about the workers who produce their clothing and are dying in the factories".

Industry experts say most garment factories are unsafe as they are housed in converted blocks of flats or complexes such as the Rana Plaza, designed to accommodate shops and banks. Fires happen frequently due to defective wiring.

Last November a fire in a factory making clothes for more over a dozen Western retailers, including Walmart, killed at least 111 people.

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