Several of the biggest Western retailers embraced a plan that would require them to help pay for factory improvements in Bangladesh as the nearly three-week search for victims of the worst garment-industry disaster in history ended Monday with the death toll at a staggering 1,127.
Bangladesh’s government also agreed to allow garment workers to form unions without permission from factory owners. That decision came a day after it announced a plan to raise the minimum wage in the industry.
The collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building April 24 focused worldwide attention on hazardous conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, where workers sew low-cost clothing that ends up on store shelves around the globe, including the U.S. and Western Europe.
The tragedy came months after a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh killed 112 workers.
Swedish retailing giant H&M, the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh; British companies Primark and Tesco; C&A; and Inditex, owner of the Zara chain, said they would sign a contract that requires them to conduct independent safety inspections, make reports on factory conditions public and cover the costs of repairs.
It also requires them to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements.
Two other companies agreed to sign last year: PVH, which makes clothes under the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod labels, and German retailer Tchibo.
Among the big holdouts so far are Wal-Mart Stores, which is the second-largest producer of clothing in Bangladesh behind H&M, and the Gap.
Labor groups are setting Wednesday as the deadline for companies to commit to the plan.
Based on the seven companies that plan to participate in the pact, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 of the 5,000 factories operating in Bangladesh will be covered, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, one of the organizations pushing for the agreement.
“This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh,” Nova said.
H&M said the agreement is a “pragmatic step,” and urged more brands to take part.
“Our strong presence in Bangladesh gives us the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community’s development,” H&M spokeswoman Helena Hermersson said. “We can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes.”
Primark is one of the few retailers that have acknowledged that their clothes were being made in the Rana Plaza building at the time of the collapse. The building housed five clothing factories.
For more than 19 days, Rana Plaza in the Dhaka suburb of Savar had been the scene of frantic rescue efforts, anguished families and the overwhelming smell of decaying flesh. The last body was found on Sunday night.
Miracles were few, but on Friday, search teams found Reshma Begum, a seamstress who survived under the rubble for 17 days on cookies and bottled water.
Begum spoke to reporters Monday from the hospital where she is being treated. She told them she never expected to be rescued, and she vowed, “I will not work in a garment factory again.”
Mohammed Amir Hossain Mazumder, deputy director of fire service and civil defense, said the search for bodies at Rana Plaza was called off Monday evening.
“Now the site will be handed over to police for protection. There will be no more activities from the fire service or army,” he said.
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