Workers Die at Factories Used by Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger agrees to safer factories after ABC News investigation.

ByABC News
March 21, 2012, 5:00 AM

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."

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."