Wal-Mart, Gap Join Bangladesh Factory Safety Group

Wal-Mart and Gap joined a Bangladesh factory safety group and were immediately criticized for not joining a more stringent pact made up of mostly European retailers. Wal-Mart says the agreement requires the inspection of all subcontractor factories within a year.

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Some of the country's biggest retailers have unveiled an initiative they say will improve conditions for workers on the other side of the world. The move by Wal-Mart, Target, and others is intended to boost safety in Bangladesh garment factories.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports the plan is a response to the devastating building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in April.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: About a quarter of the garments produced by Bangladesh factories are sold to U.S. retailers. And the recent string of deadly fires and accidents there has put great pressure on U.S. companies to do something about safety conditions. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was formed by retailers to address those concerns.

Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was among those who helped formulate the initiative. He spoke at a press conference today.

GEORGE MITCHELL: There can be no doubt about the Alliance's resolve to do its part to solve this difficult and important problem.

ZARROLI: Under the five-year agreement, the companies will set safety standards for the factories they use and inspect them regularly. They will share information about which factories are safe and try to develop plans to fix any significant problems they uncover. That includes arranging for loans to renovate factories when needed.

But Scott Nova of the Worker Safety Consortium says the agreement falls short because it's voluntary and so it can't be enforced in court.

SCOTT NOVA: The only way that we will see an end to these horrific disasters in Bangladesh is if these unsafe factories are renovated and repaired to become safe structures. That costs money. If the brands and retailers are not committed to pay, if that can't be enforced, those repairs and renovations are never going to happen.

ZARROLI: The agreement announced today comes following a separate and more binding accord that has been signed by dozens of major European retailers, including H&M and Zara. That accord commits retailers to pay for repairs at Bangladesh factories where their clothing is made. But most American retailers refused to sign it and came out with today's accord instead.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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