ABC News made repeated attempts to interview officials from PVH, Gap, and Kohl's, as well as the owner of the factory where the blaze occurred. Initially, none agreed to respond to questions about the fire or steps taken in its aftermath. Nova, one of those involved in negotiating on behalf of injured workers and relatives of the dead, said the tragedy initially prompted the brands to pledge major improvements to safety. Companies doing business with the factory at the time of the fire agreed to contribute $37,500 per company to a fund for the relatives of those who died. The companies also collaborated on other fire safety ideas, including an educational video aimed workers. But Nova said there was little beyond that.
As the initial burst of news attention from the fire began to fade, the brands grew less and less responsive, Nova said.
PVH CEO Emanuel Chirico later told ABC News that Nova's assertion was "false" and "totally offline." He said the brands did not lose interest in a solution, but instead had reached a point in the negotiation where it became difficult to persuade so many different parties to find common ground on a solution. "He's wrong about [us] blocking an agreement," Chirico said. "We were trying for a global solution."
In the meantime, more Bangladeshi workers were dying as they made clothes for PVH and other popular American brands. In one incident, a worker died when an elevator cable snapped. In another, at a plant known as the Eurotex factory, smoke from a boiler explosion led a panicked group of workers to flood to the factory exits. Workers say they found the exit gated and padlocked. Two workers were trampled to death. Weeks before the boiler blew, a German garment company pulled out of Eurotex, stating in a letter obtained by ABC News that "the state of the building is unacceptable with a high risk involved for all those working there." Hilfiger clothes continued to be made there, a decision PVH says was made by another factory that needed short-term help to meet Hilfiger's holiday rush. (After the explosion, PVH had Hilfiger's label pulled out of Eurotex.)
ABC News approached Hilfiger in New York to discuss the safety conditions, as he met with reporters backstage ahead of a promotional show during New York's Fashion Week. Asked about the 2010 fire and the two subsequent incidents, he said his company maintained a "gold standard" for worker safety.
"I can tell you that we no longer make clothes in those factories," Hilfiger said. "We pulled out of all of those factories."
Shipping records showed, however, that Hilfiger clothes continued to ship from two of the three factories where deadly incidents had occurred. PVH officials called ABC News the next day and asked if Hilfiger could return for a follow-up interview to correct his misstatements, along with Chirico, the company's chief executive.
Hilfiger told ABC News he had "made a mistake" when he said the company had pulled out of Bangladesh. The company left Eurotex, but remained in the other two factories to serve as "a positive force" in urging the owners to improve working conditions, Chirico said. "You need to have a voice at the table to get changes made as you go forward."
"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 labor rights groups to do more in Bangladesh. The agreement makes PVH the first brand to agree 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.
Nova agreed, saying the reform deal agreed to by PVH is "not another voluntary, non-binding, set of unenforceable corporate promises -- it is a binding, enforceable agreement under which the participating brands must open up their factories in Bangladesh to public scrutiny and must make these factories safe."
He said the goal of advocacy groups now is to "compel more brands and retailers to accept the obligations of this program so that it can be fully implemented and, we hope, transform the apparel industry in Bangladesh from the most dangerous in the world for workers to an industry that is fundamentally safe."