Union Protests to Target Gap over Bangladesh Worker Safety

PHOTO: Bangladesh rescuers look for survivors and victims at the site of a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, April 25, 2013.

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."

Wednesday a fire in another garment factory in Bangladesh killed eight people, including a top official in the industry, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Gap is not the largest western retailer doing business in Bangladesh. Walmart, for instance, does 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 said 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.

READ: Workers Died at Factory Used by Tommy Hilfiger

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.

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