The official Rana Plaza death toll stood at 1,127 on Monday as rescue efforts were finally brought to a close. At the same time, thousands of miles away, international retailers embraced a labor-backed factory safety proposal for Bangladesh’s garment factories, raising hopes that similar tragedies might be avoided in the future. Zara’s parent company Inditex, Dutch retailer C&A, H&M, and British high street giants Primark and Tesco all signed the building and fire safety agreement backed by a coalition of labor groups known as IndustriALL.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of ‘fast’ fashion for export yet workers receive paltry wages and are forced to toil for long hours in sweatshop conditions. “Fire and building safety are extremely important issues for us and we put a lot of effort and resources within this area,” Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M, said in a statement. “With this commitment we can now influence even more in this issue.” C&A and Zara both had suppliers within the eight-storey Rana Plaza, situated on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, when it collapsed on April 24., while H&M remains the largest producer of clothing in Bangladesh.
A spokesman for Primark hailed the agreement for “financing and implementing a joint fire and building safety program” that would include “safety inspections, remediation and fire safety training at supplier factories.” Previously, only two companies — PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and the German retailer Tchibo — had signed an industry safety accord for the country.
Rana Plaza housed at least 3,500 workers in five garment factories when it collapsed three weeks ago. Bosses ignored warnings to vacate the premises after gaping cracks indicated the building had been gravely compromised. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, has already been brought before a court and had his assets seized after being caught attempting to flee the country. The collapse was the world’s worst industrial accident since India’s Bhopal gas disaster killed 2,259 people in 1984.
On Sunday, Bangladesh’s government also announced plans to raise the minimum wage for the nation’s 4 million garment workers from the current rate of just $38 per month. Workers will also be allowed to form trade unions without employer approval. At least 943 out of 3,197 factories visited by fire safety officials in Dhaka have been deemed “substandard” or “risky.” Abdul Latif Siddiqui, Bangladeshi minister for textiles, told the Guardian that his government wants to safeguard the vital $19 billion industry while uplifting living standards for workers. “Labor should be justly appraised,” he said. “We do not want slave labor.” In November, 112 garment workers died in a factory fire in Dhaka while there were nine other fatalities in 41 other “fire incidents” over the following five months, according to official figures.
While the deplorable state of safety regulations in Bangladesh’s apparel industry was never in doubt, the majority of leading Western retailers still refused to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement when it was presented by the International Labor Rights Forum in November. Companies cited rising costs and the potential for punitive legal action for their hesitance. Even while bodies were still being retrieved from the rubble that was once Rana Plaza another Bangladeshi sweater factory caught fire, killing eight people.