In many ways, it is strong demand that has driven the problem in Bangladesh. Companies in developed nations like the U.S. move production from country to country in search of the lowest costs and least worker strife. Bangladesh is now second behind only China among the world's largest exporters of apparel, with a $20 billion-a-year garment industry.
Cheap labor, unlike materials, transportation and taxes, is one of the few costs retailers and brands can control. And factories in Bangladesh know they can get lucrative deals with retailers and designers by shaving pennies off the cost of making a T-shirt, so they often cut corners.
Bangladesh has the cheapest labor by far. The average garment worker in Bangladesh earns the equivalent of 24 cents an hour, compared with $1.26 an hour in China, 53 cents an hour in Vietnam and 34 cents an hour in Cambodia, according to The Worker Rights Consortium.
Yet growing competition to offer up-to-the-minute fashions at low prices in the weak global economy has led retailers and designers to demand even lower costs from factories. A few years ago, companies shipped new merchandise to stores every two to three months; now, the goal is a fresh supply each month. They are also asking factories to make last-minute changes to orders more often — add a button here or a belt there.
Factory owners can agree, or lose the order, sometimes to new factories that spring up overnight.
"Factory owners, in a certain sense, they're in a bind," says Robert Ross, author of "Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshop" and a sociologist at Clark University. "They're forced to be ruthless and brutal — and they are."
A year after the retailers' meeting in Dhaka to discuss the safety proposal, only two companies have signed the resulting joint memorandum of understanding.
Phillips Van-Heusen Corp., a New York City-based company that sells the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, in March signed the legally binding agreement after a national TV news report that chronicled the dangerous conditions in one of its Bangladesh factories. The company agreed to underwrite a two-year, $1 million program that allows independent fire-safety inspections and public reports of findings. But PVH, which did not return repeated calls seeking comment for this article, pledged to start the program only if at least three other major retailers sign on.
So far, only one has: A German coffee chain named Tchibo that also sells clothes.
Last week, Nanda Bernstein, the chain's head of vendor relations, said on a post on the company's website that measures by individual companies were not enough, and a sector-wide initiative was needed. Her quote: "As soon as two more companies join, it will come into force."
Allen G. Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C., and Anne D'Innocenzio and Scott Mayerowitz reported from New York
David McHugh in Frankfurt and Julhas Alam in Bangladesh contributed to this report.