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Major retailers sign on to Bangladesh safety plan

H&M, the largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh, joined a legally binding plan for retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in Bangladesh factories.

David Goldman/Associated Press/File 2012

H&M, the largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh, joined a legally binding plan for retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in Bangladesh factories.

NEW YORK — Three weeks after a building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers, several of the world’s largest apparel companies — including the retailing giant H&M and Inditex, owner of the Zara chain — agreed Monday to sign a far-reaching and legally binding plan that requires retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use in Bangladesh.

Consumer and labor groups hailed the move by Sweden-based H&M — which is the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh — as an important step toward improving factory safety in Bangladesh, saying it would increase pressure on other Western retailers and apparel brands to do likewise.

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Within hours of H&M’s statement Monday, C&A of the Netherlands and two British retailers, Primark and Tesco, joined in.

The factory safety agreement calls for independent, rigorous factory safety inspections with public reports and mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by Western retailers. The legally enforceable contract also calls for retailers to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements, and for workers and their unions to have a substantial voice in factory safety.

PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Izod, also said it would sign on, in an expanded version of an earlier proposal that PVH was one of two companies to sign. The new plan lasts five years, the previous one two years.

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Ever since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building April 24 on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, H&M, Walmart, Gap, and other companies have faced pressure to sign the agreement. Until Monday, only PVH and Tchibo, a German retailer, had.

In announcing its move, H&M said that “in order to make an impact and be sustainable,” the agreement “would need a broad coalition of brands.”

A company statement said the agreement committed a company to the goal of a safe and sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh “in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures.”

“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 the retailer.

H&M and Gap were the target of an online petition that obtained more than 900,000 signatures and was sponsored by Avaaz, a human rights group. The petition said, “Your companies and other multinationals profit from cheap labor, and can do much more to reduce the dangers of the places where your products are made.”

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

PVH also said Monday that it would contribute $2.5 million to underwrite factory safety improvements as part of the new plan.

Gap has resisted signing on, objecting to its legally binding nature and saying it was already doing a lot on its own, having hired a fire inspector and promising $22 million in loans for factory improvements.

The Associated Press reported that Gap said Monday that the pact is ‘‘within reach.’’

Bangladeshi labor groups that have sifted through the Rana Plaza rubble have not found any evidence that H&M or Gap had garments made at any of the five factories in the building.

But numerous investor, religious, consumer, and labor groups are pressing other companies known to have obtained apparel from the factories there — Benetton, Cato Fashions, the Children’s Place, el Corte Ingles, Loblaws, and Primark — to sign on to the safety plan.

Primark, which had acknowledged that one of its suppliers had occupied the second floor of the eight-story building, had already pledged to compensate victims who worked for its supplier and their families.

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