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Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 04/11/2013

Workers in the Bangladesh apparel industry are trying to raise awareness in Washington of the nation’s working conditions.

This story first appeared in the April 11, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Sumi Abedin, a Bangladeshi garment worker who survived the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in November, and Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, met on Wednesday with George Miller (D., Calif.) and were trying to meet with Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) or members of his team.

At the same time, protests against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc. were being planned for today at a Gap unit in the Friendship Heights Metro Station in Washington, D.C. Organizers said Gap was being targeted because it refused in 2012 to participate in a fire safety program for the Bangladeshi garment industry, preferring to go it alone.

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Miller issued a statement: “[Sumi Abedin’s] stories provide real insight into the outrageous working conditions that she and her fellow workers had to endure. There have been at least 40 fires in Bangladeshi garment factories since this tragedy. I am increasingly concerned that the response by most U.S. brands that subcontract there has been woefully inadequate. When the cost to fix these fire hazards is estimated to be 10 cents per garment, Gap and Wal-Mart need to be committing resources and entering into enforceable agreements.”

Wal-Mart is being asked to participate in an April 15 conference in Geneva about how brands can compensate victims of fires and victims’ families, organized by global union IndustriAll. Disney, Sears Holding Corp., Delta Apparel Inc., Sean John and Dickies are among the U.S. companies that have also been invited.

As reported Tuesday, Wal-Mart said it would donate $1.6 million toward improving safety standards in Bangladesh. Labor groups immediately criticized the size of the donation, saying the world’s largest retailer wasn’t doing enough.

Abedin and Akter on Friday will go to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to “memorialize the workers” whose lives were lost in the Tazreen fire. The women are scheduled to speak Friday afternoon at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville.

The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which would facilitate in-factory safety procedures, continues to go unsigned by H&M, Wal-Mart and Gap. H&M, which sources more apparel from Bangladesh than any other retailer, said, “Primarily, it is the local government that has the responsibility to monitor the electrical installations in the factories.”

An H&M spokeswoman in Stockholm explained, “To be accepted as an H&M supplier, a factory must have emergency exits, a fire alarm installed on a separate power line and connected to its own generator, emergency lights, fire extinguishers, evacuation plans and minutes of fire evacuation drills.”

H&M introduced an education program to raise fire awareness and contacted other brands that manufacture in Bangladesh, including Abercrombie & Fitch, C&A, Carrefour, Carter’s, Gap, J.C. Penney Co. Inc., PVH Corp., Target Corp., Tchibo, Terranova, Tesco, VF Corp. and Wal-Mart. “Approximately three million workers will receive the education by 2013,” the spokeswoman said. “Collaborating with industry peers can help to increase the influence we have, whereas working alone, we’d have less influence.”