A few days ago it was announced that the International Labour Organization joined a major “compact” launched by the European Union together with the Government of Bangladesh – to improve labour rights, working conditions and factory safety in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. It commits all the parties concerned to a number of time-bound actions, including reforming the Bangladesh Labour Law to strengthening workers’ rights; improving building and fire safety by June 2014 and recruiting 200 additional inspectors by the end of 2013.

On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building, collapsed in Savar, a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka Area, the capital of Bangladesh. The accident resulted in the death of 1,127 workers and approximately 2,500 injured. The building contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several other shops.  Days before the collapse, cracks had been discovered in the building and, after an inspection, warnings to avoid using the building had been issued; but garment workers were ordered to return to work and the building subsequently collapsed.

Workers making clothes that end up in the stores of the biggest US and European stores have often told of the shocking regime of abuse, threats and poverty pay. In interviews, workers have said they work 60 or more hours a week, sometimes in 24-hour shifts. Many workers in garment factories earn so little that an entire month’s wages would not buy a single item they produce. Physical and verbal abuse is rife, and workers who toil long hours in an attempt to support their families on poverty wages often claim they are cheated out of the salaries that they are owed by their employers.

In the last few years, there have been other incidents affecting garment workers. On 11 September 2012, garment factories in the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Lahore caught fire. The fires occurred in a textile factory in the western part of Karachi and in a shoemaking factory in Lahore. The fires killed 315 people and injured more than 250. The Karachi factory fire took place at around 6 p.m., when fire erupted in the factory’s storage department. The blaze spread quickly, engulfing the main building where about 660 people were working. On the ground floor, some workers were burned alive. On the second floor, its windows barred, many suffocated from the smoke. In the basement, workers were trapped as hot water flowed from firefighters’ hoses.  They were literally boiled alive.

Weeks after the Dhaka building collapse, in May of 2013, a number of large, global apparel and retail companies began negotiating an accord aimed at improving conditions for garment workers in the area and preventing future tragedies. Retailers including H&M, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Primark, Zara’s parent company Inditex, Mango, Benetton, and PVH (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) are among those which have finally signed up to the new plan to improve conditions in factories, and prevent disasters such as the building collapse at the Rana Plaza factory complex, in Dhaka and elsewhere.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a binding contract between around 70 top retailers and clothing brands, international and local trade unions and NGOs. Companies that signed the agreement are committed to remove severe hazards facing workers and ensure improved conditions. The accord requires independent safety inspection of facilities, along with transparent public reporting of findings, mandatory repairs and renovations. The program will also develop process for workers to report health and safety risks. Initial inspections to identify grave risks and any urgent repairs must be completed by April 2014. The companies involved in the agreement have also committed to paying for these repairs and upgrades, and to stop doing business with facilities that refuse to comply with the new directives.

However, not all retailers have followed suit in this initiative; Walmart, Target, J.C. Penney, Gap, Sears and the largest federation of US-based retailers balked at signing, claiming the recent accord would increase their liability for abuses at foreign factories. Their argument hinges on their reasoning that the ultimate responsibility for maintaining standards lies with factory management and owners alone. The dissenting, largely US based retailers, are poised to unveil a rival plan, one already panned by critics as a smokescreen designed to help them skirt responsibility for fixing their unsafe factories.

The question seems to be whether European and US retailers should take some responsibility for the working conditions in third countries for the workers who make their clothes, or whether governments for these countries should be solely responsible for adopting effective laws to protect their workers. Gap and Tommy Hillfiger might disagree on this one, but as consumers we can take a position on the issue and patronize the retailers that we feel are doing the right thing, and inversely, stop buying from those we feel are contributing to human rights violations with their actions. Consumers should also be aware of the real cost of cheap clothes for those who make them.