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Global Retailers to Inspect Bangladesh Garment Factories

  • Aru Pande

In this Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, photo, Bangladeshi garment workers manufacture clothing in a factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In this Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, photo, Bangladeshi garment workers manufacture clothing in a factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

More than 70 global retailers are moving forward with plans to inspect clothing factories in Bangladesh, just months after at least 1,100 people were killed in a collapse in Dhaka. A new agreement looks to improve labor safety standards in Bangladesh.

For more than a decade, Kalpona Akter has made it her mission to give a voice to many of the 3.5 million Bangladeshi workers who spend hours in cramped and often unsafe conditions churning out T-shirts and accessories for global fashion giants.

Since the April disaster in which hundreds of garment workers were buried under the rubble of the Rana Plaza, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity now spends her days trying to win compensation for victims and their families, while also encouraging laborers to speak out.

“We are in contact with them on a daily basis to know how their factories are, whether they feel safe or what needs to be done and how they should raise their voices when they see there is a crack in the factory,” Kalpona said.

She said her efforts are being helped by the attention and pressure on global retailers since the deadliest incident to hit Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry.

This week, nearly 70 mainly European retailers who have signed a five-year accord announced the next steps to raising fire and building safety standards in Bangladeshi factories where their clothes are made.

The plan, led by global unions IndustriALL and UNI, includes inspecting every factory within nine months to identify grave safety hazards, publicly report the findings and implementing a remediation plan that would compensate workers in factories that have to be shut down for repairs. Money for the safety improvements would come from the retailers who signed the agreement.

IndustriALL’s Health, Safety and Sustainability Director Brian Kohler said this type of legally binding contract to raise standards is unprecedented.

“I think it really is a game-changer in terms of how these things can go," Kohler said. "It’s not just another voluntary agreement, it’s not like a typical corporate social responsibility initiative. It’s a real agreement with real commitments.”

Bangladeshi activist Kalpona Akter welcomes the plan but wishes more American retailers had signed on.

Some including U.S. retail giant Walmart and Gap, having announced their own plans, are also pursuing a separate effort aimed at improving fire and safety standards in Bangladeshi factories. The effort is being led by two prominent U.S. lawmakers, but critics believe the plan will fall short of the transparency and oversight of the European-led effort.

“I think the U.S. retailers, who did not sign the accord, really do not care about these workers," Akter said."They are just still thinking about their profits. Because of the profits, they are not signing it.”

Still, Akter is quick to point out that the responsibility for maintaining safe conditions for garment workers falls not just on global retailers - but also on factory owners and authorities in Dhaka.

Following talks this week in Geneva, European Union and Bangladeshi officials launched a joint initiative that calls on the government to strengthen workers’ bargaining rights and hire 200 additional factory inspectors.

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