NEW YORK — Some of the world's largest retailers have agreed to a first-of-its-kind pact to improve safety at some of Bangladesh's garment factories following a building collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers in the country last month.
The move comes just days shy of a deadline imposed by workers' rights groups that said they would hold street protests and otherwise increase pressure on clothing brands that did not sign the agreement by Wednesday.
H&M, a trendy Swedish chain that's the largest clothing buyer in Bangladesh, on Monday said that it would sign a five-year, legally binding factory safety contract. Within hours, C&A of the Netherlands, British retailers Tesco and Primark, and Spain's Inditex, owner of the Zara chain, followed.
The agreement requires that the companies conduct independent safety inspections, make their reports on factory conditions public and cover the costs for needed repairs. It also calls for them to pay up to $500,000 annually toward the effort, to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make safety upgrades and to allow workers and their unions to have a voice in factory safety.
"We can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes," Helena Hermersson, an H&M spokeswoman, said in a statement on Monday.
The companies that agreed to the pact on Monday join two other retailers that signed the contract last year: PVH, which makes clothes under the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod labels, and German retailer Tchibo. The agreement has since been expanded to five years from two.
Among the holdouts, Wal-Mart, the second-largest clothing buyer in Bangladesh, said through spokesman Kevin Gardner that it had nothing to announce on Monday. And Gap, which had been close to signing the agreement last year, said Monday that the pact is "within reach," but the company is concerned about the possible legal liability involved.
Labor groups applauded the retailers that signed the pact on Monday. They say the agreement goes a long way toward improving working conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry, which long has been known to be dangerous.
Based on the seven companies that plan to participate in the pact, between 500 and 1,000 of the 5,000 Bangladesh factories will be covered, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a workers' rights group that had been one of the organizations pushing for the agreement.
"This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh," he said.
The agreement comes as the working conditions of Bangladesh's garment industry have come under increased scrutiny. Since 2005, at least 1,800 workers have been killed in the Bangladeshi garment industry in factory fires and building collapses, according to research by the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum.
The two latest tragedies in the country's garment industry have raised alarm. The building collapse on April 24 was the industry's worst disaster in history. And it came months after a fire in another garment factory in Bangladesh in November killed 112 workers.
Following the latest tragedy, Walt Disney Co. announced that it is stopping production of its branded goods in Bangladesh. But most retailers have vowed to stay and promised to work for change. H&M and Wal-Mart both have said they have no plans to leave. Other big chains such as The Children's Place, Mango, J.C. Penney, Gap, Benetton and Sears have said the same.
But the pressure has increased for those that stay. Since April's building collapse, Avaaz, a human rights group with 21 million members worldwide, has gotten more than 900,000 signatures on a petition pushing Gap and H&M to commit to the proposal. And in the U.S., university chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops are helping to stage demonstrations against Gap in more than a dozen cities including Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.
The safety agreement comes two years after a fire and safety proposal drawn up by labor unions was first rejected by many clothing companies as too costly and legally binding. The latest agreement is a revised version of that proposed pact.
Forty companies, including Wal-Mart, H&M, and J.C. Penney, met in Germany with labor rights groups days after the building collapse. They discussed how the industry could improve safety conditions in Bangladesh.
H&M said Monday that the new agreement is a "pragmatic step," and urged more brands to reach a pact that covers the entire industry of factories in Bangladesh.
Primark, which is among the few companies to have acknowledged that suppliers were making clothes for them at the site of the April building collapse and to promise to compensate workers and their families, agreed.
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Monday, the company said that the agreement was the most likely way to "bring effective and sustainable change for the better to the Bangladeshi garment industry."