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Union Protests to Target Gap over Bangladesh Worker Safety

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- A leading American labor union is throwing its weight behind public protests against Gap Inc. planned for this weekend in what the union's leader said is an "opening salvo" in the battle against dangerous working conditions in Bangladesh.

The announcement from Noel Beasley, President of the SEIU affiliate Workers United, came as the death toll of garment workers from last week's massive building collapse near Bangladesh's capital Dhaka continued to rise, now estimated to be more than 900.

Gap clothing was not discovered in the collapse, but the popular brand is one of the largest American retailers producing clothing in Bangladesh and its products were found in a fire there two and a half years ago that killed 29 workers.

"When we talk about death trap factories I think that label is appropriate for Gap," said Liana Foxvog, the organizing director of the International Labor Rights Forum. "If Gap had stepped forward on this issue sooner, we believe other brands would have followed, and it's possible some of these disasters could have been prevented."

Gap is not the largest western retailer doing business in Bangladesh. Both Wal-Mart and H&M, which is parent to such well-known brands as Wrangler, do more than $1 billion of manufacturing in the densely-packed South Asian country.

Beasley told ABC News his union's protests may expand beyond Gap to other major retailers, but that Gap has become a focal point because the company "has trumpeted itself" as a leader on social responsibility.

Beasley said the tough stance against Gap would involve rallies Saturday by hundreds of workers in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York, as well as a newly unveiled website called Gapdeathtraps.com. It is a strategy adopted by labor leaders who said they believe the giant retailer will be unable to stomach the potential damage to its brand that the protests could bring.

One Gap official told ABC News that company executives recognize the brand has been made vulnerable by recent events, but they said unlike some major companies, Gap has been willing to participate in on-and-off discussions with labor and advocacy groups about factory conditions in Bangladesh for more than two years.

Debbie Mesloh, a Gap Inc. spokeswoman, called the situation in Bangladesh a "watershed moment." She said she believes "there is momentum in bringing parties together to achieve lasting change."

In October, Gap officials surprised international labor groups by stepping away from a proposed workers' safety agreement that could, if successful, have involved most of the major western brands doing business in Bangladesh. So far the only major brand to sign on to the agreement has been PVH Corp., the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger. Hilfiger's history with a deadly factory fire in Bangladesh was the focus of an ABC News investigation that aired last year.

Instead of joining PVH in signing the historic agreement, Gap announced it would be launching its own safety program. That plan instituted inspections conducted by an internationally recognized fire safety expert, a requirement that factories correct any fire safety violations that the expert discovered, and a financing assistance plan for factory owners to put those safety measures in place.

"Gap Inc. takes our commitment to improving working conditions in Bangladesh seriously, and we have taken action where we can make a direct impact," the company said in a statement emailed to ABC News. "Gap Inc. implemented last October a four-point plan that includes up to $22 million in assistance to workers and to improve fire safety at the selected factories that produce our products. In fact, we have independent fire inspectors working in Bangladesh right now who have identified improvements that can be made at the factories with which we work."

Labor organizers said they believe the Gap plan falls short.

"Someone at first glance who is not familiar with building and safety code issues might think it looks decent," Foxvog said. "But it's non-transparent, non-binding."

Unlike such major brands as H&M, Nike and Adidas, she said, Gap's plan does not identify factories in Bangladesh where the company does business.

Foxvog also criticized the plan for failing to make public any safety problems its inspectors discover, saying it could leave workers in the dark about the dangers they are facing. It also does not enable outsiders to verify that Gap is taking concrete steps to put in place even basic safety precautions such as enclosed stairwells, unlocked exits and fire escapes, she said.

In addition to the unions and other advocates for garment workers, federal officials have also urged major clothing retailers to work together to improve conditions. The State Department convened a conference call with the brands in response to the deadly building collapse, saying, "the tragedy at Rana Plaza once again underscores the urgent need for government, owners, buyers, and labor organizations to work together to improve labor safety and the lives of working people in Bangladesh."

"Both the United States and Bangladesh have a shared interest in ensuring that the growth of Bangladesh's export sector does not come at the expense of safe and healthy working conditions or fundamental labor rights," said the State Department statement released Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) also urged the Obama administration to intervene. In a letter to the president, Miller wrote that "the mounting death toll in Bangladesh's garment industry, with the collapse last week of the Rana Plaza, underscores the clear need for immediate action to address the crisis in working conditions and worker rights in that country."

In the aftermath of the building collapse with its massive death toll, discussions between retailers and labor groups have resumed. Foxvog said the retailers identified May 15 as the date where they will make a decision on a new draft agreement that would require the brands change the way they do business in Bangladesh. Foxvog said the protests are intended to push Gap to sign the deal.

"If Gap is unwilling to do the right thing it will be hard to get others to get on board," Foxvog said. "If we can get Gap to agree to the same type of agreement that then other companies would get on board as well."

Gap officials said they, too, are hoping for an agreement that involves all of the major retailers.

"Gap Inc. has participated in numerous discussions with a broad base of stakeholders, and we are hopeful there is momentum in bringing parties together to achieve lasting change," the company said.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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