March 22, 2012 -- Celebrity skateboard icon Tony Hawk has parlayed his rugged image into a brand that earns more than $200 million a year and dominates the young men and boys clothing aisles at the discount department store Kohl's. The Hawk label was also on the garment factory floor in a Bangladesh high-rise just over a year ago when a fire swept through the upper stories, killing 29 workers.
Making clothes in the world's cheapest labor market helps keep down costs for American consumers – but also carries risks for the people inside the factories.
"Bangladesh is the cheapest place in the world to make apparel," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. "The lowest wages -- 21 cents an hour -- the weakest regulations, the worst attention to workplace safety. All this adds up to terrible conditions for workers, but great prices for apparel buyers and that's why the brands and retailers are there."
On Wednesday, an ABC News investigation exposed the heavy toll paid by workers who make the clothing that Americans wear -- with nearly 500 dead in fires at garment factories in Bangladesh over the past five years. Designer Tommy Hilfiger acknowledged in an interview with ABC News that the garment industry has done too little to protect workers who make their clothes, and the company that owns his brand, PVH Corp., responded with an unprecedented commitment to improve fire safety -- including more than $1 million to help support an independent fire inspector for the factories in Bangladesh.
But other brands have been slower to act, said Nova, who represents one of several advocacy groups that has spent more than a year trying to get the brands to take tangible steps to prevent future tragedies.
"There's always the claim that they care and want things to improve. What matters here is action," Nova said. "And we're aware of no action that Tony Hawk of Kohl's has taken since this tragic fire to actually improve their practices."
ABC News caught up with Hawk at the opening of a California skate park and asked him about the fire.
"It's tragic," Hawk told ABC News. "I think that the safety standards need to change and I support whatever change that they can make there."
Hawk said he and other celebrities who have licensed their names to clothing lines have a responsibility to insure people are not dying to make their garments.
"Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, for sure. It's just difficult because my clothing company actually got purchased by another company and got licensed, so there was kind of a separation, a removal," he said. "But I definitely want to follow up and make sure that it's safe. I mean that's the bottom line, it has to be safe."
Twenty-nine workers at the factory where Hawk's clothing line for Kohl's, as well as items for PVH Corp., Gap and other popular American brands, are manufactured, perished in the December 2010 blaze. The fire seemed to encapsulate in one tragic incident the range of dangers that have for years faced the low-wage workers who stitch together American garments. Electrical wiring overloaded by sewing equipment is believed to have sparked the flames in the high-rise building. Dozens of workers, breaking for lunch at a make-shift canteen on the roof, were unable to descend smoke-filled stairwells and were trapped far out of reach of ladder trucks. The building, like most factories in Bangladesh, lacked fire escapes, sprinklers, and other modern safety equipment. As the flames intensified -- fueled by piles of clothes and fabric -- workers trying to flee said they found at least one of the factory's gates padlocked. Several were forced to fashion ropes from rolls of fabric to attempt to scale down the side of the building.
For weeks, ABC News tried to speak with executives at the Wisconsin-based Kohl's, a company that describes itself as "a family-focused, value-oriented specialty department store." The day before the news report aired, Kohl's responded to questions about factory safety conditions with a three-sentence written statement that noted the company had pledged a total of $37,500 to the relatives of the 29 workers who died.
"Kohl's has made a private donation to the humanitarian fund to help support the victims and their families affected by the tragic fire that occurred last year in Bangladesh," said Vicki Shamion, Kohl's senior vice president, community and public relations. "Our donation was equivalent to that of other U.S.-based retailers. We are committed to improving fire safety and continuing our discussions with the Global Works Foundations regarding participation in a Bangladesh fire safety project that they are planning."
Nova said he and other advocates are urging celebrities such as Hawk to do more to address the working conditions in Bangladesh.
"This is his clothing line, it's his name on the clothing, he makes the decision to license his name to a company like Kohl's, he has a responsibility to ensure that clothing is made under conditions that he personally finds acceptable," Nova said. "And obviously, as you can see from his comments here, he hasn't done that."
ABC News producer Robert Rudman contributed to this report. Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.