Three weeks after and more than 1,000 lives lost, Bangladesh's more than three million garments workers scored a victory when major international clothing retailers such as Zara and H&M, among others, agreed to fund safety upgrades in the country's factories where they source their products.

On Monday, Bangladesh formally closed its rescue and search operations for bodies under the rubble of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed on April 24. The official death toll was registered at 1,127.

Spain-based multinational Inditex, owner of the Zara chain; Swedish retailing giant H&M; Britain's Primark Stores and Tesco; and C&A of The Netherlands unilaterally announced, also on Monday, they signed a five-year, legally binding factory safety contract. Essentially, they agreed to finance safety upgrades at apparel factories in Bangladesh.

Although none of the initial four companies that signed the agreement had clothes produced in the collapsed Rana Plaza factory building, all however faced intense pressure and scrutiny from consumers and stakeholders concerning the safety conditions of the factories where they source their products.

The safety agreement, named the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, called for the following:

  • that the companies conduct independent safety inspections
  • that they make public their reports on factory conditions as well as the cover the costs for needed repairs, which could amount to $500,000 annually
  • that they stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make safety upgrades
  • that they allow workers and their unions to have a voice in factory safety

"We can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes," Helena Hermersson, an H&M spokeswoman, said in a statement on Monday.

"Fire and building safety are extremely important issues for us and we put a lot of effort and resources within this area. With this commitment we can now influence even more in this issue. We hope for a broad coalition of signatures in order for the agreement to work effectively on ground," she added.

"H&M's and Inditex's decision to sign the accord is crucial," Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, the independent labor rights watchdog, was quoted by ABC News. "H&M is the single largest producer of apparel in Bangladesh, ahead even of Wal-Mart. Inditex, owner of Zara, is the largest fashion retailer in the world. This accord now has tremendous momentum."

Between 500 and 1,000 of the 5,000 factories operated in Bangladesh will be covered under the agreement.

"This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh," Mr Nova said.

On Monday evening, 19 days after it collapsed, authorities had called off retrieval and rescue operations and closed the rubber pile scene at Rana Plaza. The last body was found on Sunday night.

"The site will now be handed over to police for protection. There will be no more activities from the fire service or army," Mohammed Amir Hossain Mazumder, deputy director of fire service and civil defense, said.

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