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H&M Accused of Dragging Feet on Worker Safety in Bangladesh

Interior of Garib & Garib, an H&M supplier factory in Bangladesh where 21 workers were killed in a fire in 2010. | Image Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign

Earlier this month, H&M was accused of being “dramatically behind schedule” in meeting the requirements of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in a joint report from the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, and Worker Rights Consortium. H&M has responded to the allegations, but the organizations behind the report still assert that the retailer needs to aim higher.

“In the face of worldwide revulsion over the Rana Plaza catastrophe and other garment factory disasters, H&M, the largest producer of garments in Bangladesh, promised to address hazardous conditions in its contract factories there,” Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium said in a statement. “It is now clear that H&M has broken this promise.”

The report claims that all of the contract factories H&M identified as top labor and environmental performers in its supply chain failed to meet mandated timeframes for repairs and the majority of renovations have still not been completed.

“For the first time ever, thanks to the Accord, H&M now knows all the renovations needed to finally make its factories safe so that workers will no longer risk their lives and worry whether they’ll experience the next Rana Plaza,” said Bob Jeffcott of the Maquila Solidarity Network. “Despite this knowledge, they continue to drag their feet to carry out these critical renovations.”

The report found that fireproof doors, the removal of locking and sliding doors from fire exits, and the enclosure of stairwells are among the outstanding renovations, despite the fact that these improvements are required by law under the Accord and are absolutely essential in saving lives during an emergency.

As the report explains, “When a fire breaks out in a multi-story building, smoke immediately begins to spread up and out, filling any open area. If, as is the case in most garment factories in Bangladesh, there are not fireproof doors installed at the entrance and exit to each floor, thus isolating the stairwells from other building spaces, the stairwells will quickly fill with smoke and become impassable, trapping workers on the upper stories.

“This is the defect that has been the primary culprit in virtually every mass fatality fire in the Bangladesh garment industry, including the Tazreen Fashions fire in November of 2012, which killed more than a hundred workers.”

In 2010, 21 workers died in a fire at H&M supplier factory Garib & Garib, which lacked critical safety elements including proper fire exits. It was discovered that workers were locked in when the fire broke out, despite H&M’s claims that doors and gates do not get locked in its supplier factories.

H&M disputes the report’s claims. Its official response states, “First, we are only producing in factories that meet the Accord requirements for operation and we have taken the required measurements. Secondly, fire exits are one of the most fundamental requirements for a supplier in order to be allowed to produce for H&M. Thirdly, our own internal follow-up data shows that where H&M is lead-brand, almost 60 percent of the remediation work is completed and we see good progress.”

H&M’s statements are misleading, according to a rebuttal from the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, and Maquila Solidarity Network released this week. The organizations explain that the Accord allows factories to remain in operation while carrying out the required repairs if there is no immediate risk to life. “Meeting requirements” therefore means the factory is not at risk of immediate collapse. Corrective action plans establish deadlines based on the urgency of the repair and the amount of time it is likely to take for the repair to be carried out — deadlines which have often been missed in H&M’s supply chain factories.

“Lead-brand” refers to the brand primarily responsible for overseeing progress in specific factories, based on the brand’s identification of its most important and strategic suppliers. Where H&M is the lead-brand is not publicly available, so the company’s claim is not verifiable, according to the organizations taking the retailer to task. However, they point out that it is “quite disturbing” that over 40 percent of repairs have not been completed in those factories, if H&M’s statement is accurate.

Fire doors and sprinklers are not available in Bangladesh and must be imported, which H&M claims is causing delays. The organizations claim that this issue was of concern in 2013 and more progress should have been made in the two years since. Their report found that 61 percent of H&M’s strategic suppliers do not have fire doors.

“If only H&M was willing put the same energy into actually meeting their much-lauded sustainability commitments as they do into promoting them, we may well be closer to seeing a safer garment industry in Bangladesh,” said Samantha Maher of the Clean Clothes Campaign. 


Hannah Furlong is one of Sustainable Brands's Contributing Writers, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]


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