Following more than 300 deaths and 1,200 injuries in last week's collapse of an eight-story building that housed garment factories near the Bangladeshi capital, Western retail brands that buy from such factories are responding to questions about their possible indirect responsibility in the tragedy.
The collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar, near the capital of Dhaka, which comes months after a Nov. 24 building fire killed 112 garment workers at the Tazreen Fashions factory, also in Bangladesh, has renewed criticism of Western brands' alleged failure to do more to promote safe working conditions in Bangladeshi factories from which they buy clothing.
In response, Western brands have expressed sorrow and sympathy over the accident but not direct responsibility for the tragedy when reached for comment by the International Business Times. Rather, they deny links to the companies operating in the doomed structure or cite ongoing safety initiatives.
Rana Plaza housed five garment factories and employed more than 3,000 workers who produced clothing for European and American consumers. Labor activists -- citing customs records, labels found in the wreckage and information from company Web sites -- said that the factories produced clothing for numerous brands including Cato Fashions, Benetton Group SpA (BIT:BEN), Primark and J.C. Penney Company Inc. (NYSE:JCP), reports the New York Times (NYSE:NYT).
Here is a sample of what these companies are saying.
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Cato Corp. (NYSE:CATO) said it uses an independent third party for factory evaluations including social and safety audits.
"Based upon our further review, it appears that New Wave Bottoms, a factory occupying space in the collapsed building, was a factory of one of our vendors," said John R. Howe, chief financial officer. "However, we did not have any ongoing production at the time of the incident."
Though regretful about the tragedy, Benetton Group SpA distanced itself from culpability.
"Regarding the tragic accident in Dhaka, Bangladesh, we wish to confirm that none of the companies involved is a supplier to any of our brands," said Benetton's media representative, Veronica Artuso. However, she acknowledged that the Rana Plaza factory had recently fulfilled "a one-time order" for Benetton, but Artuso said it had been completed and shipped several weeks prior to the accident and they had already removed that subcontractor from their supplier list.
"A program of random audits takes place on an ongoing basis throughout our global supply chain," Artuso added, "to ensure that all direct and indirect suppliers comply with our long-standing social, labor and environmental standards."
British clothier Primark Stores Ltd. said it will expand its efforts on behalf of worker safety to include building inspections. Even if equipment quality or exit availability passed inspection by unions, the strength of the building is a different matter that will require construction experts and engineers. Some workers reported seeing cracks in the building a day prior to the collapse, but factory owners allegedly ignored the warnings and forced employees to return to work.
Primark confirmed that one of its suppliers occupied the second floor of the eight-story building, yet moving forward it will add structure checks to its measures.
"Primark has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry's approach to factory standards," the company said. "Primark will push for this review to also include building integrity."
J.C. Penney Company Inc. (NYSE:JCP) had no information about the Bangladesh incident on its website but said the damaged factories had never been active suppliers for J.C. Penney private label merchandise. "But we recently learned that one of the factories did produce Joe Fresh products, a small portion of which was destined for J.C. Penney," said spokesperson Daphne Avila. "While J.C. Penney has no direct insight into the development and sourcing of Joe Fresh apparel, we will continue to be a part of a broader coalition that aims to improve the safe working conditions in Bangladesh."