Three influential labour rights organisations have called on major garment retailers and brands to join a fire and building safety accord to prevent factory tragedies in Bangladesh.
The International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) made the move after Saturday's fire at Smart Export Garments Ltd in the capital, which killed at least seven female workers and injured several others.
That was the latest in a pattern of deadly industrial fires, which, according to labour rights advocates, could have been prevented had appropriate measures been taken.
No brand or retailer has so far come forward to acknowledge any connection with Smart Export Garments. The factory reportedly had some 300 workers and produced goods for US and European brands and retailers.
In a joint statement issued on the day of the incident, the labour rights groups said the foreign buyers that had used to work with Smart Export should immediately take responsibility and compensate the victims.
"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 marginalised, weakening workers' ability to speak up when they are at risk," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of ILRF.
Two companies, PVH (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and German retailer Tchibo, signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which provides for financing workers' safety mechanism, bans production at the factories refusing to make necessary repairs for safety, and requires public disclosure of the findings of all factory inspections.
Global retailer Walmart and other companies say they are taking action to protect workers but labour groups challenge the validity of such claims, pointing out that the companies have refused to pay for factory renovations and are not revealing which companies they have links with and the results of their safety audits.
"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?" Scott Nova, executive director of WRC, said in the statement.
All the key buyers refused to change their sourcing and monitoring practices to ensure that Bangladeshi factories were upgraded and workers could freely speak out against safety violations, said Ineke Zeldenrust of CCC.
“Instead, they go for cosmetic changes that merely scratch the surface."