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Garment industry in Bangladesh fears exodus of retailers

A day after the Walt Disney Co. disclosed that it was ending apparel production in Bangladesh, that country’s garment manufacturers expressed alarm that other Western corporations might follow Disney’s lead. They feared that could bring about a potential mass exodus that would devastate Bangladesh’s economy and threaten the livelihoods of millions of people.

Mohammad Fazlul Azim, a member of the Bangladesh Parliament and an influential garment factory owner, implored brands not to leave Bangladesh, noting that many factories do comply with safety standards.

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‘‘The whole nation should not be made to suffer,’’ he said. ‘‘This industry is very important to us. Fourteen million families depend on this.’’

Factory owners in Bangladesh as well as apparel retailers in the West have faced intense pressure from governments, consumers, and labor groups to improve workplace safety there after a building containing five garment factories collapsed last week outside the nation’s capital, killing more than 430 people.

Several Western retailers indicated Thursday that they were considering new plans to ensure factory safety, efforts that would require investing in, rather than abandoning, their operations in Bangladesh. Few have made financial commitments to upgrade unsafe factory buildings or to endorse tougher and deeper inspections, however. So far, pledging money for relief efforts has been the most common response by big retailers.

Officials from two nongovernment organizations who attended a meeting in Germany on Monday aimed at improving factory safety in Bangladesh said Thursday that they were confident that several major retailers would soon join a broad plan to ensure fire and building safety in Bangladesh factories. But, so far, that plan has been embraced by just PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and the Tchibo Group, a German retailer.

If a few more retail giants sign on, labor groups are likely to turn up the pressure on others to join the effort or face protests, several officials said. Some companies have taken steps on their own. In October, Gap announced a $22 million fire and building safety plan with its suppliers in Bangladesh, without identifying which factories it was using there or how many factories would be improved under the plan. And three weeks ago, Walmart pledged $1.8 million to train 2,000 Bangladesh factory managers about fire safety.

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