Bangladesh and top Western retailers agreed safety standards covering some 3,500 factories Thursday, paving the way for more thorough inspections after one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
Retailers, government and union representatives agreed the minimum fire and safety standards for factories where some four million workers stitch clothes for outlets such as Walmart and H&M, officials said.
"This is a very significant development. These common safety standards will now pave the way for the start of factory inspections from Friday," said International Labour Organisation (ILO) official Srinivas Reddy.
The standards are aimed at simplifying inspections and avoiding duplication following the Rana Plaza disaster in April that killed 1,135 people and shone a global spotlight on shoddy conditions at factories.
"Once a factory is inspected in line with the common standards, there will be no need for another initiative to inspect it again," Reddy, the ILO's Bangladesh chief, told AFP.
Retailers and engineering experts from a top Bangladesh university have developed the guidelines which were formally endorsed on Thursday, said Reddy from the ILO which helped broker the deal.
US and European retailers signed up to two separate safety pacts after coming under intense pressure in the wake of the April disaster.
The two groups will carry out inspections of their 2,000-odd factories using the new standards, while the government will check about 1,500 factories not covered by the pacts, starting from Friday, Reddy said.
The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which represents the US retailers, announced on Wednesday it had agreed to the new standards.
"I am encouraged by the progress made in Dhaka this month in the effort to establish harmonised safety standards for the garment industry," said Jeffrey Krilla, head of the alliance group.
Bangladesh's top labour official Mikail Shipar said all the factories would be forced to adopt the standards. Failure to meet them could lead to a shutdown.
"The agreement today forms a major breakthrough which will help ensure the safety of all workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh and prevent tragic events like Tazreen and Rana Plaza from happening again," said Labour Secretary Shipar.
A fire at the Tazreen factory killed 111 workers last November.
But Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile labour rights group, raised "serious concerns" regarding American retailers, who, under the agreement are not obliged to pay for remediation, unlike their European counterparts.
"Having a standard in and of itself however will not make factories safe, and the past violations have not been due to lack of a harmonised standard we believe," Ineke Zeldenrust of the CCC told AFP in emailed comments.
She said the "real question" was whether the inspections were "independent, transparent, and directly involves workers and their organisations, so that the violations are all uncovered and a credible action plan is put together to resolve them".
And, she added, "if the remediation is mandatory, time-bound and if the financial means are made available to make the necessary renovations."
"On these two points CCC has, as you know, serious concerns on the programme of the Alliance," she said.
The American-led Alliance comprises 26 retailers, which include Walmart, Gap, Kohl's and Target.
Bangladesh's $22 billion garment industry is the world's second largest after China's and employs four million workers, most of them women.
But the sector has been hit by a string of deadly disasters.
Thousands of workers have also staged street protests in recent days against a new minimum wage which they say is too low, forcing the closure of several hundred factories.