PVH Corp. said Wednesday it has entered into a “joint memorandum of understanding” with a group of nongovernmental organizations and international and Bangladeshi trade unions and has committed $1 million to underwrite a program on improving fire and building safety in Bangladesh’s apparel factories.

This story first appeared in the March 22, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The moves come in reaction to a 2010 blaze at a factory in Bangladesh that killed 29 apparel workers making goods for the company.

The agreement with the NGOs — the Clean Clothes Campaign, Worker Rights Consortium, the International Labor Rights Forum and Maquila Solidarity Network — and unions recognizes the need for the Bangladeshi government, the Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment industry association, brand owners and retailers and labor to work together to create a safe and sustainable work environment within the Asian nation’s industry. It establishes a two-year program to be led by a multistakeholder task force for the purposes of establishing an in-factory training program, facilitating the creation of factory health and safety committees, reviewing existing building regulations and enforcement, developing a worker complaint process and mechanism for workers to report health and safety risks and advising a chief inspector.

The chief inspector will design and implement a fire safety inspection program based on internationally recognized workplace safety standards, and will direct and oversee other elements of the program. The program will go into effect when at least three other well-known international brand owners or retailers sign the agreement. PVH has also committed to using good faith efforts to advance the purposes of the agreement on its own if other brand owners and retailers do not join the agreement. The NGOs said they have reached out to Gap Inc. and Kohl’s Corp., which were also making goods at the factory at the time. Neither company responded to inquiries for comment.

Tommy Hilfiger, whose PVH-produced line was subsequently involved at two other facilities in Bangladesh that had safety issues, but not at the factory that had the fire, told ABC News in a segment sent to the media that “I think raising the bar is necessary. And that is what we’re doing, raising the bar.”

PVH and the other participating firms will identify the facilities they use and will require them to create health and safety committees to reduce illness and injury. If a facility fails to remediate high safety risks or implement other aspects of the program after efforts of the companies, then, as a last resort, the companies will move production to a qualified, safe facility in Bangladesh. Efforts will be made to protect any workers displaced as a result of the move of production.

In December 2010, a fire broke out at the 11-story Ha-Meem Group plant in Ashulia, where about 6,000 workers were engaged in production activities. Firemen rushed to the site but could not enter the fifth floor of the building due to excessive heat, forcing the authorities to summon army personnel who tried to rescue the trapped workers, mostly women, with their helicopters. Many were seen jumping from the building to escape the fire.

Emanuel Chirico, chairman and chief executive officer of PVH, which owns and markets the Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands worldwide, as well as marketing a variety of proprietary and licensed lines, commended the NGOs and unions “for their commitment and insight in helping to create this landmark agreement.”

“We hope this agreement will find cooperation from the Bangladesh Manufacturers & Exporters Association, its members and the Bangladeshi government to put into effect its terms and that it will result in safer factories and establish a benchmark for fire and building safety standards and practices throughout Bangladesh,” Chirico added.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said, “The steps PVH is taking are highly significant and, if other brands follow suit, will save lives in Bangladesh. We have criticized PVH in the past for their approach to these issues. We would be remiss if we did not now credit them for the steps they have agreed to take.”

Nova said the burden is now on other brands, such as Gap and Kohl’s, that have had production in factories that have had deadly fires in Bangladesh “to demonstrate…that they care about protecting the lives of the workers who make their clothing.”

Tessel Pauli, urgent appeals coordinator with the Clean Clothes Campaign, said, “Fire and building safety is absolutely critical for Bangladeshi garment workers. CCC has been working for a long time on safety in Bangladesh and believes this agreement reached with PVH has the potential to save the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of workers currently at risk.”

Pauli said CCC expects other key brands to sign on quickly.

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