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Major Retailers Join Bangladesh Safety Plan

A rescue worker at the site where a factory complex collapsed on April 24. The death toll stood Monday at 1,127. Crews have almost completed clearing debris and searching for the victims. More Photos »

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.

Shoppers at an H&M store in Atlanta. H&M, the largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh, approved a plan Monday to help pay for fire safety and building improvements in the country. More Photos »

The agreement, hailed by labor and consumer groups as a major breakthrough, came as the Bangladeshi government also took steps to respond to the April 24 disaster at Rana Plaza outside Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. In the last two days, the government has pledged to raise wages for garment workers and change labor laws to make it easier to form trade unions.

The parallel announcements by global brands and the Bangladeshi government 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 retailers Primark and Tesco.

“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 H&M. “With this commitment we can now influence even more in this issue. We hope for a broad coalition of signatures in order for the agreement to work effectively on the ground.”

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 ensure factory safety.

“H&M’s decision to sign the accord is crucial,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory-monitoring group in Washington that is backed by 175 American colleges and universities. “They are the single largest producer of apparel in Bangladesh, ahead even of Walmart. This accord now has tremendous momentum.”

Labor 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.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s cabinet on Monday approved changes in labor laws. Gowher Rizvi, a top adviser to Bangladesh’s prime minister, said the changes — which still require approval by Parliament — are part of a broader government effort to come into compliance with international labor standards and improve on-the-job conditions.

“Worker safety and worker welfare have now been brought into the forefront,” Mr. Rizvi said in a telephone interview. He said discussions on these changes predated the Rana Plaza collapse but agreed that the disaster had intensified the pressure for reforms.

Steven Greenhouse reported from New York, and Jim Yardley from New Delhi. Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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