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Consumers League Takes On Bangladesh Tragedy

WASHINGTON (CN) - Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and The Children's Place violated their public commitments to corporate social responsibility when they ignored structural flaws that caused the collapse of a Bangladesh building that housed their garment factories, the National Consumers League claims in court.

The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza near the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka killed more than 1,000 people and injured more than 2,500 others, many of whom were underpaid workers, according to the complaint filed Thursday in D.C. Superior Court.

Indicating knowledge that the building was unsafe, the National Consumers League claims that public authorities had evacuated the building one day before the collapse when cracks appeared in the structure. Managers at the garment factories threatened a month's pay cut if workers did not return the next day, according to the complaint.

Rana Plaza was not designed to be as tall as it was - its builders obtained a permit for a five-story building but illegally added three extra stories - and was built with "inadequate" materials, the consumers league says.

Contending that "Rana Plaza is not an outlier situation," the complaint notes that "numerous collapses and fires, which killed and injured workers, preceding the Rana Plaza collapse, should have put defendants on notice."

Though Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney's and The Children's Place sold items traced to garment factories in Rana Plaza, all three companies quickly distanced themselves from the clothing produced there after the collapse, according to the complaint.

The Children's Place claimed none of its clothing at the time came from factories in the building, according to a New York Times article cited in the complaint.

Each of the companies publically committed to corporate social-responsibility policies that expressly forbid child labor and set environmental and humanitarian standards for facilities that produce company products, according to the complaint.

The National Consumers League claims this was done with consumers in mind, as numerous studies cited in the complaint have found a large majority of people seek out socially or environmentally responsible products when choosing where to spend their money.

"Defendants understood and reasonably foresaw that their business practice of contracting or subcontracting with Bangladeshi garment companies, including those in Rana Plaza, would, without adequate supervision, inspection, and audits, put hose workers at risk of suffering personal injury or death," the complaint states. "Such understanding was the impetus behind defendants' much lauded [corporate social responsibility] standards and marketing."

Repudiating these commitments, however, all three companies had ties to companies that made clothes at the poorly constructed Bangladesh factory, according to the complaint.

The consumer league says Ether Tex, a company that had a factory in the Rana Plaza building, listed Walmart as a customer on its website, and that documents found at the building suggest Walmart sold clothes at one of the factories, according to the complaint and a New York Times article cited in the complaint.

Wal-Mart noted Monday that it has not been served with the complaint but that "our hearts continue to go out to the victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy."

"We remain committed to improving the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh and have been collaborating with multiple stakeholders and other companies to improve standards and ultimately the safety of workers," a representative for the company said in a statement.

The Children's Place allegedly had roughly 120,000 pounds of clothes in its inventory that could be traced to Rana Plaza weeks before the collapse, according to a Daily Kos article cited in the complaint. Furthermore, an August story from Al Jazeera found the company still uses clothing from "unsafe sweatshops" in Dhaka, according to the complaint.

A Forbes article cited in the complaint meanwhile notes that J.C. Penney's Joe Fresh brand could be traced to Rana Plaza.

Plano, Texas-based J.C. Penney told the Dallas Morning News back in April that it did not know until after the Rana Plaza collapse that a national clothing brand with which it worked had traced some of its inventory to a factory in the building.

Penney declined to update this statement Monday.

On behalf of D.C. residents, the National Consumers League seeks $1,500 per violation of the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

The Children's Place and the National Consumers League did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

A class of family members of workers killed in the Rana Plaza collapse filed suit against the three companies in July, claiming the retailers were aware of the defects in the Rana Plaza building before the collapse.

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