Labor rights groups implore apparel brands to sign fire safety agreement

Following the fire that killed at least seven people today who were locked inside Smart Export Garments Ltd in Dhaka, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) called on major retailers and brands that buy apparel from Bangladesh to join the labor-supported Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement in order to prevent future tragedies.

The factory fire is the latest in a pattern of deadly fires that labor rights advocates say could have been prevented with appropriate measures. According to ILRF's new report, Deadly Secrets, which examines how corporate-controlled monitoring has failed to protect workers' lives, since 1990, over 1000 people have been killed in garment factories in Bangladesh.

"After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed: brands still keep their audit results secret; they still walk away when it suits them; and trade unions are still marginalized, weakening workers' ability to speak up when they are at risk," said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of ILRF.

The disaster at Smart Export Garments comes just two months after the Tazreen Fashions fire in which at least 112 workers were killed. None of the retailers that produced at Tazreen, which included Walmart, Sears and C&A, have paid any compensation to the injured workers and families of the dead. There have also been 18 other non-fatal apparel factory fires in Bangladesh since November.

"The recurring fires give us a clear picture that the initiative by the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to curb the death toll is too little and too late. The government, BGMEA, and western retailers need to act rapidly to stop the killings and to ensure a safe workplace for our workers," said Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.

Labor rights advocates have for years been calling on these and other US brands and retailers to finance the major renovations and repairs needed to make Bangladesh's apparel factories safe. Two companies, PVH (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and the German retailer Tchibo, have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which provides for such financing, bans production at any factory that refuses to make needed safety repairs, and requires public disclosure of the results of all factory inspections. While Walmart and other companies say they are taking action to protect workers, labor groups challenge the validity of those claims, pointing out that the companies have made no enforceable commitments, refuse to pay for factory renovations, and won't make the names of their factories in Bangladesh and the results of their safety audits public.

Asked Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium, "How many more workers have to die before the Walmart, Gap, H&M and the other big retailers finally commit to pay for the reforms that are needed to make the industry in Bangladesh safe?"

So far, no brand or retailer has stepped forward to acknowledge a relationship with Smart Export Garments. The factory reportedly had 350 to 400 workers and was likely producing goods for US and European brands and retailers. ILRF, WRC and CCC said that the companies that used the factory should immediately take responsibility and commit to aid the victims.

Said Ineke Zeldenrust from CCC, "All the key buyers in Bangladesh have been involved in deadly fires in the past years; however they refuse to make the systemic changes necessary to their sourcing and monitoring practices to ensure that buildings are upgraded and workers can freely speak out and report safety violations. Instead, they go for cosmetic changes that merely scratch the surface."

International Labor Rights Forum ( ) is a U.S.-based advocacy organization dedicated to achieving just and humane treatment for workers worldwide.

The Worker Rights Consortium ( ) is a labor rights monitoring organization backed by US colleges and universities that investigations working conditions in clothing factories around the world.

The Clean Clothes Campaign ( ) is an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries dedicated to improving working conditions and supporting the empowerment of workers in the global garment and sportswear industries.