Worker Rights Consortium Urges Apparel Brands to Join International Safety Accord on Anniversary of Deadly Factory Fire

Since the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry went into effect in September, 155 apparel brands and retailers have signed this new binding agreement which expands the model pioneered by the Bangladesh Accord for protecting worker safety. The signatories include many of the world’s leading apparel brands and retailers.

Notably missing, however, are a number of important US retailers, including several that produced garments at the That’s It Sportswear factory in the outskirts of Dhaka, where 29 workers died in a massive fire 11 years ago. These include Target, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Carter’s, and Abercrombie & Fitch, among others.

The fire broke out on December 14, 2010, on the 9th and 10th floors of the factory, owned by Ha-Meem Group, one of Bangladesh’s largest apparel manufacturers. Workers were trapped on the 11th floor because the building had no protected exit stairwells—in gross violation of Bangladesh’s building safety code. In a scene horribly reminiscent of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, many of the workers fell to their deaths trying to climb down the building’s exterior. In addition to the 29 who lost their lives, 11 workers were left with serious injuries.

Kohl’s, Target, JCPenney, Abercrombie & Fitch, Carter’s, and other companies that produced at That’s It Sportswear all maintained labor rights monitoring schemes that were supposed to protect workers’ safety—yet these companies took no apparent action in the months and years before the fire to address the hazards that ultimately killed 29 garment workers.

Despite calls in the wake of this disaster for all apparel brands and retailers producing in Bangladesh to help address the sweeping safety deficiencies across the country’s 3,000 garment factories, multiple US companies rejected the creation of a new safety agreement. For example, Walmart claimed in 2011 that it was “not financially feasible” for it to pay better prices to suppliers to help pay for safety renovations like proper fire exits.

Incredibly, when a binding agreement between unions and brands to address worker safety in Bangladesh was finally created after the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, most of the brands that produced at That’s Its Sportswear refused to sign it, including Kohl’s, Target, JCPenney, and Carter’s. Abercrombie & Fitch did sign, but then refused to remain in the agreement when it was renewed in 2018. To date, none of these brands have signed the new International Safety Accord.

“Safety renovations generated by the Accord across 1,600 factories have made conditions safer for more than two million workers”, said Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “Participation by additional retailers such as Target, Gap, and Kohl’s would bring this life-saving program to cover thousands more workers in Bangladesh and could help ensure its expansion to other countries.”