Avaaz then racheted up the pressure -- it launched an ad campaign featuring a photo of Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M, alongside a young Bangladeshi woman in tears.
The ad asked the CEOs of H&M and the Gap to take personal responsibility for the deaths of the Bangladeshi workers. "These factories aren't sweatshops, they're deathshops. Hundreds of women have been crushed to death making our clothes," Avaaz said in a May 9 press release. "Two major clothing companies have signed the robust safety agreement, including PVH -- the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger -- but GAP and H&M have yet to state their positions."
Both Dagens Industri, a Swedish newspaper, and Women's Wear Daily magazine, a major industry publication, refused to run the ad, says Avaaz. But as a signature campaign started to get hundreds of thousands of signatures on Facebook, H&M caved and announced it would adopt the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
"Our strong presence in Bangladesh gives us the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community's development," Helena Helmersson, an H&M spokesperson, claimed in a press release. "By being on site, put demands on manufacturers and work for continuous improvements, we can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes."
The company immediately received accolades in the press for "setting an example" and for making a "game-changing" move.
(It should be noted that while H&M has committed to pay a maximum of --500,000 ($640,000) a year into the new building fund, the figure represents a little less than 0.02 percent of the $2.7 billion in profits the company made last year)
This is not the first time that H&M has agreed to change its ways as a result of unwelcome activist attention.
For example, Cambodia is often promoted as an alternative to Bangladesh for apparel production. There the minimum wage for garment workers is $66 a month, the second-lowest in the world. Although safety standards are better than in Bangladesh, low pay, long hours, and employers breaking laws are common there, unions say.
In February 2012, Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a Cambodian labor group, held a two-day "People's Tribunal on for Minimum Living Wages and Decent Working Conditions for Garment Workers as a Fundamental Right." Garment workers testified on their experiences of poverty, short-term contracts, substandard housing conditions and an epidemic of workplace fainting.
H&M was invited to attend but did not.
"The tribunal reveals a chasm between the CSR [corporate social responsibility] speak of international garment companies and the real situation faced by Asian garment workers," said Anannya Bhattacharjee, coordinator of the International Asia Floor Wage Alliance.
Bhattacharjee said that the core issue was that garment workers need to be paid more.
"The wage issue is a cross border problem and needs to be addressed as such. International players must work together and use the Asia Floor Wage figure to combat poverty pay in the garment sector," she said.
A year later, some 200 Cambodian workers, who sewed underwear for Kingsland Garment Company, a sub-contractor to H&M and Walmart, camped outside their factory in Phnom Penh and held a two-day hunger strike when the company suddenly shut down and seized payment of their legally mandated unemployment wages.
"We decided to start sleeping outside of the factory to prevent management from taking the machinery out," Yorn Sok Leng, 30, told Labor Notes, an activist media organization.