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Western Retailers To Fund Upgrades At Bangladesh Factories

Four retailers who represent the largest purchasers of clothes produced in Bangladesh announced Monday that they have will help finance safety upgrades at apparel factories in the South Asia country after the collapse of a garment complex killed more than 1,000 workers.

The news comes as the death toll in the April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza near Dhaka rose to at least 1,127, according to officials.

In a statement from Sweden-based H&M and Inditex, the parent company of Zara, the retail giants urged others to join them. Within hours Britain's Primark Stores and Tesco as well as C&A of the Netherlands said they would also sign on to the legally binding agreement to "guarantee safe working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry."

H&M spokeswoman Helena Hermersson said the company's "strong presence in Bangladesh" gave it a unique opportunity to "contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community's development."

H&M called the agreement a "pragmatic step," and said if other brands follow suit they could collectively cover all of the country's estimated 5,000 garment factories.

Karen Stinebrickner-Kaufman, executive director of the watchdog group SumOfUs.org praised H&M and Zara and expressed hope that "Gap and other brands follow their competitors' lead.

"Only legally binding programs that are accountable to workers themselves can guarantee that the clothes we buy aren't being made in death traps," she said.

The New York Times reports that the agreement:

"... calls for independent, rigorous factory safety inspections with public reports and mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by Western retailers. A legally enforceable contract, it also calls for retailers to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements, and for workers and their unions to have a substantial voice in factory safety."

The newspaper says two other companies — PVH, which makes clothes for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod, as well as German retailer Tchibo — had agreed to sign last year.

Bangladesh's cabinet on Monday approved changes to the labor laws that would make it easier for workers to form trade unions.

According to The Times:

"A top adviser to Bangladesh's prime minister, Gowher Rizvi, said the changes approved by the cabinet – which must still be approved by the country's Parliament – are part of a broader government effort to come into compliance with international labor standards and improve conditions for workers in an industry that is critical to the nation's economy.

'Worker safety and worker welfare have now been brought into the forefront,' Mr. Rizvi said in a telephone interview. He said that discussions on these changes predated the Rana Plaza collapse even as he agreed that the disaster had intensified the pressure for reforms."

Update at 7:10 p.m. ET: Factories Closed Over Fears Of Violence:

The BBC also cites a report that as many as 300 factories have been closed in the Ashulia industrial area near Dhaka as a consequence in the wake of the collapse:

"Owners decided to close their factories on safety grounds after workers went on a rampage almost every day after the collapse of Rana Plaza," Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said on Monday.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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