Four of the biggest Western retailers embraced a plan that would require them to help pay for factory improvements in Bangladesh as the nearly three-week search for victims of the worst garment-industry disaster in history ended Monday with the death toll at 1,127.
Bangladesh’s government also agreed to allow garment workers to form unions without permission from factory owners. That decision came a day after it announced a plan to raise the minimum wage in the industry.
The collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building April 24 focused worldwide attention on hazardous conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, where workers sew low-cost clothing that ends up on store shelves around the globe, including the U.S. and Western Europe.
It came months after a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh in November killed 112 workers.
Swedish retailing giant H&M, the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh; Britain’s Primark Stores; C&A; and Inditex, owner of the Zara chain, said they would sign a contract that requires them to conduct independent safety inspections, make reports on factory conditions public and cover the costs of repairs.
It also requires them to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements.
Two other companies agreed to sign last year: PVH, which makes clothes under the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod labels, and German retailer Tchibo. Others have refused to sign, complaining that the plan would be legally binding and costly.
H&M said the agreement is a “pragmatic step,” and urged more brands to reach a pact that covers the entire industry of 5,000 factories in Bangladesh.
“Our strong presence in Bangladesh gives us the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community’s development,” H&M spokeswoman Helena Hermersson said. “We can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes.”