STOCKHOLM - Swedish fashion retailer H&M said Monday that it will sign up to a legally binding fire and building safety plan drawn up by unions in Bangladesh, following the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in a building collapse there last month.
The company described safety issues as "extremely important," saying that it supports the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, initiated by IndustriALL Global Union.
"The parties will be committed to the goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment industry in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures," the company said in a press release. "H&M appreciates ILO (the U.N. International Labor Organization) playing a vital part as coordinator."
Forty garment buyers, including Wal-Mart, H&M, and J.C. Penney, met with labor rights groups on April 29 in Germany to discuss how the industry could improve safety conditions in Bangladesh, with labor groups setting Wednesday as the deadline for companies to commit to the plan. The agreement would require clothing companies to pay for needed safety improvements and allow independent inspections of the factories in Bangladesh.
A fire and safety proposal drawn up last year by labor unions, which included the establishment of an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, was rejected by companies in the country's clothing industries as too costly and legally binding.
Two other clothing companies -- PVH, the parent company of such brands as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer -- have already signed up to the plan. Gap was close to signing last fall but then backed out and announced its own plan that included hiring an independent fire safety expert to inspect factories.
Adding to the pressure on retailers, Avaaz, a human rights group with 21 million members worldwide, has garnered more than 900,000 signatures on a petition pushing Gap and H&M to commit to the proposal.
H&M said the new five-year accord was a "pragmatic step," and urged for a broad coalition of brands to reach an agreement that covers the entire industry of some 5,000 factories in Bangladesh.
Founded in 1947, H&M has more than 2,800 stores in 48 countries and employs more than 100,000 people. In addition to H&M, the group includes the brands COS, Monki, Weekday and Cheap Monday, & Other Stories as well as H&M Home.
"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 in a statement. She added that by being on site in Bangladesh and putting demands on manufacturers and working for improvements, "we can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes."
The company declined to comment on the accord apart from statements made in their Monday press release.