Photo by Reuters

JCPenney has allegedly backed out of negotiations to compensate the families of victims killed at a Bangladesh factory fire in December, according to the International Labor Rights Forum. The big-box retailer is one of eight U.S. brands—including Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger—that manufactures its products at That’s It Sportswear, a garment factory just north of the capital of Dhaka. The fire, which broke out on the ninth and 10th floors of the multistory complex, killed 30 people and injured dozens—a result of blocked exits meant to control workers’ movements. It’s a situation eerily reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy in New York City a century ago.

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After the incident, the ILRF started a petition on to pressure the clothing brands to fairly compensate the victims’ families, as well as take measures to improve safety standards in their supplier factories. Seven of the eight brands agreed, signing a commitment. JCPenney, which initially pledged to do the same, has since dropped out, says Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which is working with the ILRF on the issue. “Although JCPenney originally agreed,” Nova tells Ecouterre, “they now refuse to contribute to discussions toward the fulfillment.”

“All we’re asking is that JCPenney keep the promises they made to the wives, husbands, and children of the people killed at one of their factories,” says ILRF director Judy Gearhart.

Asked for comment, a JCPenney spokesman provided a statement of support for a joint effort by the Bangladeshi government and apparel industry to improve fire-safety standards and prevent future accidents. Nova remains skeptical, however. “Partnering with the Bangladeshi government for workers’ rights is like partnering with Bank of America to promote truth in lending,” he says. “No serious observer would think they were actually trying to help.” What the ILRF, Worker Rights Consortium, and other human-rights activists are looking for is “something independent from the government and transparent,” he adds.

Judy Gearhart, director of the ILRF, cannot agree more. “All we’re asking is that JCPenney keep the promises they made to the wives, husbands, and children of the 30 people killed at one of their supplier factories,” she says. “While the other brands who have made commitments to support these families continue to work with us in good faith, JCPenney has sadly walked away from the table. They need to honor their commitment to these families who have already lost so much and to take preventative action to ensure that no more workers who sew JCPenney clothing are killed in factory fires.”

Nearly 500 workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh over the past five years, the ILRF notes in a new petition that targets JCPenney’s alleged breach of faith. “Establishing effective initiatives to prevent fires like this from occurring again is critical,” it adds. “Nothing less than workers’ lives are at stake.”

+ Press Release

+ Petition on