This week, the Blotter is reprising five different Brian Ross Unit investigations that made a difference in 2012. Today: Garment workers making clothes for well-known American brands die by the hundreds as unsafe factories go up in flames.
Tommy Hilfiger, one of the world's best known designers had his fashionable men's clothes in production at the Hameem Factory in Bangladesh when a fire swept through the ill-equipped high-rise, and by the time the blaze was extinguished, 29 workers were dead – many killed when they leapt from the building's upper floors.
An ABC News investigation found that Hilfiger was one of many well-known American clothing brands that had left unaddressed repeated warnings about safety conditions at dangerous high rise garment factories in Bangladesh, where an epidemic of fires had left more than 500 workers dead in the previous five years.
Bangladesh has become second only to China as a leading exporter of clothing to American retailers, largely driven by the world's stingiest labor rates – as low as 21 cents-an-hour. High-rise factories have sprouted across the dense city of Dhaka, many of them poorly built, with faulty electrical systems, limited ventilation, no fire escapes, and little more than water buckets with which to bat down flames.
ABC News traveled to Bangladesh to document the conditions, and then sought out comment from Hilfiger – who had declined initial requests for an interview – while he showed off his signature designs at New York's fashion week. Hilfiger said he had pulled production of his clothes out of Bangladesh. Later, he returned to ABC News for a lengthy sit-down interview accompanied by the CEO of Hilfiger's parent company, PVH, which is known more popularly as Phillips-Van Heusen. He and PVH CEO Manuel Chirico corrected Hilfiger's earlier misstatements, saying the designer had remained in production in Bangladesh so it could work from within to improve conditions.
"That's one of the reasons I'm here today," Chirico said. "I think this expose is -- I'm trying to use this terrible situation as a catalyst for more change."
Following the interview, Chirico told ABC News the company had reached an agreement with worker rights groups to do more in Bangladesh. The company signed an agreement making PVH the first brand to impose fire safety standards on the factories where its clothes are made, and help pay for an independent inspector to "design and implement a fire safety inspection program based on internationally recognized workplace safety standards." The company agreed to commit between $1 million and $2 million to finance the program.
"PVH is the first company to commit to this landmark program," the company said in a statement to ABC News.
While the changes hold promise for reform in Bangladesh, just six months after the ABC News report the country suffered the worst blaze in its history. More than 112 workers died in the Tazreen Fashions factory, where they were reportedly sewing clothes for such major American brands as Wal-Mart, Sears, and Disney, among others. The U.S. companies say their clothing was manufactured at Tazreen without their . PVH and Hilfiger were not among the companies using the factory.