Not even the deaths of more than 1,100 workers in the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh have moved significant numbers of US retailers to join a global effort to make sure such a disaster does not happen again. More than 30 international brands have signed on to a global pact to improve fire and building safety conditions, including Swedish retailer H&M — reportedly the world’s largest buyer of clothing sewn in Bangladesh — and Italian clothing maker Benetton. Under the agreement, companies will contribute up to $500,000 for each of the next five years for building improvements and inspections, and will terminate contracts with suppliers that do not cooperate. But only two American companies — Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein — have done so.
Walmart, the Gap, Target, Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney have demurred, some saying the pact might make them legally liable for workplace conditions they can’t control. The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail industry organization, rejected the global pact earlier this month, saying it was working on its own safety program.
It had better be a good program. American retailers may feel justified in ducking responsibility for horrific Third World factory conditions to protect their shareholders from legal damages, but they also have an obligation to the workers who make their products. In its press release, the retailers’ federation said the Bangladesh tragedy was “heartbreaking,” but proceeded to trumpet how companies have already “invested significant resources” in worker safety. Obviously, such investments weren’t nearly enough. In recent years, thousands of people have perished in fires, accidents, and now a building collapse while making cheap clothes for the world. The world needs to respond swiftly and effectively.