March 21, 2012 — -- More than a year after 29 people were trapped in a fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh used by well-known American clothing brands, an ABC News investigation found the retailers right back in business at the factory. And labor groups say dangerous conditions such as locked gates and shoddy wiring persist in a country where nearly 500 workers have died in garment factory fires over the past five years.
In advance of the ABC News report, the company that produces the Tommy Hilfiger line announced it would be the first company whose clothes were being made during the deadly blaze to demand changes -- committing to spend more than $1 million to enforce a set of safety reforms demanded by labor rights groups. Among them, an independent fire inspector and reports about safety conditions that are made public.
"I think raising the bar is necessary," Hilfiger told ABC News. "And that is what we're doing -- raising the bar."
ABC News first approached Hilfiger with questions about safety conditions in February after his company, PVH, had been identified by labor groups as one of the companies least receptive to their efforts to improve working conditions in Bangladesh.
"Just in recent weeks, three workers were killed at two separate factories producing clothing for Tommy Hilfiger," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, one of several labor groups that has been pushing for higher safety standards in Bangladesh. "They say they're trying to improve conditions. They say they care about the rights of workers. They say they're committed to preventing fires and other tragedies in places like Bangladesh. But when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they don't do it."
Tune in for the ABC News Investigative Unit's full report tonight on "World News With Diane Sawyer" at 6:30 ET and on "Nightline" at 11:35 ET.
Known more popularly as Phillips-Van Heusen, Hilfiger's parent company was one of the companies whose clothing was being made in the building where Bangladesh suffered one of its most devastating fires in recent history.
Twenty-nine workers who were making clothes for PVH, as well as Gap, Kohl's and other popular American companies, perished in the 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.
Mohammed Ariful Islam, a survivor, told ABC News he tried to escape down a stairwell from the 11th floor, but the smoke was too thick.
"I managed to break one of the windows -- the glass in the window," Islam told ABC News through a translator. "I broke open the iron grid and there was a roll of cloth fabric lying on the floor. So I threw it down [the side of the building] and used that as a rope."
As he climbed down, other workers were leaping from the windows above him. He believes he had made it down to the 7th floor when one of the plummeting bodies struck him, and he lost his grip and began to fall himself, sustaining severe injuries to his back.
"He doesn't remember anything," the translator said. "He only regained his consciousness in the evening when he woke up in the hospital."
Workers Trampled to Death
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 whichthe 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."
Gap, Kohl's Respond to ABC News
Gap is reported to be involved in negotiations. The company sent ABC News a statement saying it, too, had taken steps to try and improve conditions at the factory where the fire occurred, as well as at other factories in Bangladesh. Gap called the issue "complex," and says a solution will involve the Bangladesh government, factory owners and labor groups. The statement said the company is conducting ongoing inspections of the factories it hires to make its clothes and has continued to monitor progress.
"The devastating fire … in Bangladesh remains a poignant reminder of the need for sustainable solutions to improve factory workplace safety across the country's apparel industry," the statement says. "More than a year later, the memories of this tragedy remain top of mind at Gap Inc., and our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives."
Kohl's offered its response to ABC News questions on Tuesday, after several months of inquiries. "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. 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."
Hameem, the company that owns the factory where the deadly fire occurred, did not respond to repeated calls and emails from ABC News.