Some of the world’s largest fashion chains, including Zara and H&M, have signed a legally binding agreement to help finance building improvements and fire safety in the Bangladeshi factories they use.
The agreement aims to make mandatory independent factory safety inspections as well as repairs.
A spokesman for H&M, the Swedish multinational retail-clothing company, said they hoped to create an working environment “in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures.”
The move came on Monday, as Bangladesh’s government agreed to allow the country’s garment workers, which number four million, to form trade unions without permission from factory owners.
Government spokesman Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyansaid said ministers had agreed to amend the law to lift legal restrictions on the formation of trade unions in most industries.
“No such permission from owners is now needed,” Bhuiyan told reporters. “The government is doing it for the welfare of the workers.”
The announcement came following the collapse of the Rana Plaza building on April 24, which killed more than 1,100 people.
A series of deadly incidents at factories, including a fire in November that killed 112 people, have focused global attention on safety standards in Bangladesh’s booming garment industry, the world’s biggest exporter of clothing after China.
Since 2005, at least 1,800 garment workers have been killed in fires and building collapses in the country, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.
Spurred by the most recent building collapse, which has attracted international condemnation, the government also announced, Sunday, to raise the minimum wage of garment workers who are paid among some of the lowest wages in the world.
Those working in Rana Plaza were paid just $38 a month, according to The Guardian on Monday.
“I believe labor should be justly appraised. We want to save the industry but at the same time we want to uplift the standard of living of our workers. We do not want slave labor,” Abdul Latif Siddiqui, minister for textiles said in an interview with the Guardian.
Major U.S. retailers, including Gap Inc, declined to endorse the accord on Bangladesh building and fire safety backed by Europe’s two biggest fashion chains.
This has presented itself as a trans-Atlantic divide that may dilute garment industry reform efforts.
However, Europe accounts for about 60 percent of Bangladesh’s clothing exports, according to Reuters, so even without participation from the big U.S. retailers, the agreement may bring some change in a country that has seen at least three deadly garment factory disasters in the span of six months.
Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the deal was a bit of good news in the “worst time for us.”
“We believe this decision will motivate other big buyers across the West and the USA to join their hands with us,” he told Reuters in an interview.