SAVAR, Bangladesh – Several 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 a staggering 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 United States and Western Europe.
The tragedy came months after a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh killed 112 workers.
Swedish retailing giant H&M, the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh; British companies Primark and Tesco; 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.
Among the big holdouts so far are Walmart Stores, which is the second-largest producer of clothing in Bangladesh behind H&M, and the Gap.
Labor groups are setting Wednesday as the deadline for companies to commit to the plan.
Based on the seven companies that plan to participate in the pact, between 500 and 1,000 of the 5,000 factories operating in Bangladesh will be covered, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, 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,” Nova said.
H&M said the agreement is a “pragmatic step,” and urged more brands to take part.
“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.”
Primark is one of the few retailers that have acknowledged that their clothes were being made in the Rana Plaza building at the time of the collapse. The building housed five clothing factories.
Mohammed Amir Hossain Mazumder, deputy director of fire service and civil defense, said the search for bodies at Rana Plaza was called off Monday evening.
“Now the site will be handed over to police for protection. There will be no more activities from the fire service or army,” he said.
For more than 19 days, Rana Plaza in the Dhaka suburb of Savar had been the scene of frantic rescue efforts, anguished families and the overwhelming smell of decaying flesh. The last body was found Sunday night.
Miracles were few, but Friday, search teams found Reshma Begum, a seamstress who survived under the rubble for 17 days on cookies and bottled water.
Begum spoke to reporters Monday from the hospital where she is being treated. She told them she never expected to be rescued, and she vowed, “I will not work in a garment factory again.”
The Rana Plaza owner and eight other people, including garment factory owners, have been detained in the investigation. Authorities say the building owner added floors to the structure illegally and allowed the factories to install heavy equipment that the building was not designed to support.
Working conditions in the $20 billion industry are grim, a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs, and industry indifference. Minimum wages for garment workers are among the lowest in the world at 3,000 takas ($38) a month.
Bangladesh’s Cabinet approved an amendment to the 2006 Labor Act on Monday lifting restrictions on forming unions in most industries, government spokesman Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said. The old law required workers to obtain permission before they could unionize.
“No such permission from owners is now needed,” Bhuiyan told reporters after the Cabinet meeting presided over by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. “The government is doing it for the welfare of the workers.”
Union leaders responded cautiously.
“The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one,” said Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a group campaigning for garment workers’ rights. “In the past, whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment. The owners did not hesitate to fire such workers.”
Bangladesh’s government has in recent years cracked down on unions attempting to organize garment workers. In 2010 Hasina’s government launched an Industrial Police force to crush street protests by thousands of workers demanding better pay and working conditions.
On Monday, nearly 100 garment factories shut down in the Ashulia industrial area near Dhaka after protests erupted over the death of a worker, Parul Akter, 22, whose body was found Friday inside a garment factory. A local police official, Badrul Alam, said she committed suicide.
Thousands of workers took to the streets and vandalized vehicles and shops before police used sticks to disperse the protesters. Several people were injured, said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Bangladesh has 3.6 million garment workers. It is the third-biggest exporter of clothes in the world, after China and Italy.
On Sunday, the Bangladesh government set up a new minimum wage board that will issue recommendations for pay raises within three months. The Cabinet will then decide whether to accept those proposals. The wage board will include representatives of factory owners, workers and the government.
Government officials also have promised improvements in safety.
Since 2005, at least 1,800 garment workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh, according to the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum.
In the blaze last November in Dhaka, the factory lacked emergency exits, and its owner said only three floors of the eight-story building were legally built.