US says buyers 'critical' for Bangladesh garment safety

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The United States said Western brands buying clothing from Bangladesh had a "critical role" in improving conditions in the sector, even as leading US retailers refuse to sign a new safety pact.

Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman visited Bangladesh, the world's second biggest garment maker after China, to urge the government to learn the lessons of a building collapse last month that killed 1,129 workers.

She referred to the changes in regulations, building codes and inspections implemented in the US after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, which killed 146 workers.

"It was a transformation and we hope that is the case here in Bangladesh as well," she said late on Monday following meetings with government officials, workers' groups and businesses.

Asked about the role of international buyers, she said they too must work to improve safety in an industry plagued by accidents and "sweatshop" conditions for workers, who are paid less than $40 a month.

"Absolutely, the buyers have a critical role. We will continue to work in every way to get the buyers to come to the table and every appropriate way to play the part that they must play for a sustainable solution," she said.

International workers' associations such as Swiss-based UNI and IndustriALL Global Union have pressured Western retailers to sign up to a legally binding agreement committing them to independent building and fire safety inspections.

While big European brands such as H&M, Zara, Marks & Spencer and major supermarket buyers have signed up, US groups like Walmart and Gap have refused because of concerns about their legal liability.

The hugely popular Japanese brand Uniqlo has also declined to commit to the pact, but it said Tuesday that it may do in the future.

"While giving it serious consideration, we have started doing what we can do now," a spokesman said, adding the firm had this week begun checks on fire prevention and other safety measures at its suppliers in Bangladesh.

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