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N. American Retailer Group Pushes for Factory Reform in Bangladesh

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N. American Retailer Group Pushes for Factory Reform in Bangladesh

After recent tragedies at Bangladeshi factories, safety and transparency at forefront.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, comprising 23 North American retailers and apparel companies, has released a list of more than 620 factories that supply them with everything from t-shirts to automobile tires. The group, which includes mega-chain Wal-Mart and garment industry heavyweight Gap Inc., has also adopted standards for fire prevention and building safety.

The alliance was formed last July, following a tragic factory collapse in April that left more than 1,100 dead – as well as a garment factory fire that claimed the lives of 112 last November. In both cases, buildings were deemed unsafe months before disaster struck. Rather than boycotting or abandoning Bangladeshi factories – a move that would inflict far greater long-term damage on the nation’s impoverished workers – Western retailers are investing in safety and transparency.

“We recognize the urgent need to continue moving quickly to improve safety conditions because the garment workers of Bangladesh expect us to deliver on our promises,” read a statement from Jeffrey Krilla, the alliance’s acting president and a former human rights expert with the U.S. Department of State.

Krilla continued: “As our membership grows in number and global reach, we will continue working quickly and diligently on our next series of goals, and welcome collaboration with other interested parties in Bangladesh and around the globe to achieve results.”

The list of more than 620 factories currently on the list is expected to grow as more retailers join the alliance. It includes factory names, address, workforce numbers, and building composition information. More than half of the member factories are shared suppliers, producing items for multiple retailers under one roof.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) is also launching a $25 million project aimed at increasing safety conditions for Bangladesh’s apparel manufacturing workers. The ILO’s Deputy Director General, Gilbert Houngbo, told Reuters that there are 3,500 active factories in the country, all of which need to be inspected.

“The garment sector is a vital one for Bangladesh, and its low wages and duty-free access to Western markets have helped make the impoverished South Asian nation the world's second-largest clothing exporter after China,” said Reuters.

Bangladesh’s garment industry accounts for 80 percent of the country’s total export earnings – amounting to $20 billion a year. More than four million people, mostly women, are employed in the country’s apparel factories. Though Bangladesh has laws against child labor, youngsters are often found inside the nation’s apparel sweatshops.

Because of the industry’s massive impact on the economy, Bangladeshi officials are hesitant to challenge factory owners over safety concerns. Fire department permits are often ignored in the name of industry, and additional floors are illegally constructed on top of crumbling buildings to help meet the West’s insatiable demand for cheap clothes.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety claims that more than half of the factories that it oversees have undergone fire and building safety inspections since its formation.