Correction: US-Bangladesh-Factory Fire-Retailers
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Updated 1:56 a.m., Wednesday, December 12, 2012
About a year and a half before a fire at a clothing factory in Bangladesh killed 112 people in November, executives from Wal-Mart, Gap and other big retailers met nearby to discuss ways to prevent the unsafe working conditions that have made such tragedies common. Representatives from a dozen of the world's largest retailers and fashion labels gathered with labor groups and local officials in April 2011 at the three-day meeting held in the 15-story, glass-walled headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association in Dhaka, the capital. Under the terms of the agreement, each company would be required to publicly report fire hazards at factories, pay factory owners more to make repairs and provide at least $500,000 over two years for the effort. Yet some industry experts and labor activists say it is those major retailers, and the customers who buy their clothes, who ultimately set the price for how much factories get paid, and how much they in turn pay their workers. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gap Inc. and Swedish clothing chain H&M have stepped up their own fire safety efforts, but they've stopped short of industry-wide standards that would hold them legally and financially accountable for fire hazards at factories. Gap, which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains, turned down the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits, according to Bobbi Silten, senior vice president of global responsibility. [...] Gap has hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that produce Gap brands in Bangladesh. In addition to about $1 million spent on safety measures in Bangladesh in the last two years, Gap has committed to another $2 million to ensure that people laid off because of fire safety repairs are still paid. Fashion chain H&M, which places the most apparel orders in Bangladesh, also did not sign on to the legally binding proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, according to Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, who attended the Dhaka meeting. How long will it take Wal-Mart to identify a factory if they were making shirts or shorts that were uneven, or where the sewing was below acceptable quality? "Voluntary codes of conduct are useless," said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, who is best known for exposing the use of Honduran child labor to produce clothing for celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford's line in the mid-1990s. [...] factories in Bangladesh know they can get lucrative deals with retailers and designers by shaving pennies off the cost of making a T-shirt, so they often cut corners. Yet growing competition to offer up-to-the-minute fashions at low prices in the weak global economy has led retailers and designers to demand even lower costs from factories. Phillips Van-Heusen Corp., a New York City-based company that sells the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, in March signed the legally binding agreement after a national TV news report that chronicled the dangerous conditions in one of its Bangladesh factories.