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Photographs of garment workers in Dhaka on stilt houses. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS TEXTILE EMPLOYMENT)

ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS

It has been almost five months since the devastating fire at a Bangladesh clothing factory killed more than 1,100 workers. That disaster, one of the worst industrial accidents ever, galvanized the public and raised awareness of the dismal conditions experienced by the people who sew so much of the Western world's fashionable clothes.

Shockingly, only nine of the 29 brands whose products were made in the Rana Plaza complex attended a meeting last week that was called to discuss compensation for the victims. The talks, chaired by the International Labour Organization in Geneva, were intended to figure out how to help the injured and the families of those killed.

Among those who did show up were Canada's Loblaw Cos., which had some of its Joe Fresh products manufactured in Rana Plaza. And Primark Stores, the British brand that is controlled by Canada's Weston family, not only participated but also vowed to continue making emergency payments to the victims. Primark is the only company that has actually given out any compensation, and it expressed concern after last week's meeting about how long it is taking to set up a framework for long-term payouts.

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Many big retailers, including Walmart, JC Penney, Benneton and The Children's Place, didn't bother to send anyone to the meeting, even though they were invited. That is not just unfortunate, but unacceptable. Benneton said it wouldn't participate because of "a lack of clarity around the objectives." That is not a good enough reason.

There was some minor progress made by the few who did attend. They agreed to meet again over the next couple of weeks, to contribute to a compensation fund, and to co-ordinate their efforts going forward.

Perhaps some companies think that because the Rana Plaza disaster is no longer in the headlines, they can slink away from their responsibility to those who suffered. But they need to take action now, and they need to work together. The amount of money retailers are being asked to kick in – a total of about $34-million – could easily be afforded by these large companies.

These firms took advantage of the cheap labour available to them in Bangladesh, so they have a duty to compensate the victims as quickly as possible, while taking steps to ensure this kind of disaster doesn't happen again.

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