A group of leading North American retailers and brands - led by Wal-Mart and Gap - have committed more than $142m in funding and low interest loans to help improve factory safety conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh.

The 17 retailers, who also include Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears Holdings, Target, VF Corp, JC Penney, Jones Group, and Kohl's Department Stores, have joined forces as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

Between them, they are responsible for the majority of North American ready-made garment imports from Bangladesh, produced at more than 500 factories.

Outlining first details of their new Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative today (10 July), the companies described their alliance as "unprecedented" and their five-year pact as "historic".

The binding initiative sets aggressive timelines for inspections of all alliance member factories to be carried out within the first year, and common safety standards to be developed within the next three months.

Members have agreed to work only with factories that ensure a safe working environment, and will refuse to source from any factory deemed unsafe.

Inspections will be overseen by an independent board of directors, and results shared transparently and anonymously through an independent organisation, the Fair Factories Clearinghouse.

This will ensure factories with dangerous safety conditions are immediately identified, and the findings communicated to factory owners, workers and the government. It will also enable problems to be quickly addressed.

Inspectors will be empowered to immediately report any dangerous safety conditions - and even call for factory closure and evacuation of workers.

Worker Participation Committees (WPC) will be set up at each factory to give workers a forum to raise safety and workplace concerns without fear of retaliation.

And an anonymous worker hotline, administered by a third party, will be established by November of this year allowing concerns to be reported by mobile phone.

There will also be twice-yearly progress reports to provide updates on performance against objectives.

Members of the alliance have already committed $42m in funding to the initiative, with some companies offering an additional $100m in loans and capital to help factory owners carry out safety improvements.

The amount of funding is based upon the amount of production each company has in the country, with those sourcing the most paying $1m a year for five years.

The alliance will designate 10% of the fund to assist workers temporarily displaced by factory improvements or in the event of a factory closure for safety reasons.

The funds also will support a non-governmental organisation (NGO) - not yet selected - that will implement components of the programme in Bangladesh.

To govern the alliance and ensure member retailers follow through on their commitments, a nine-member board of directors is being set up consisting of four retailers, four stakeholders and an independent chair.

Alliance member CEOs said they had joined together in a collective effort because: "The safety record of Bangladeshi factories is unacceptable. We can prevent future tragedies by consolidating and amplifying our individual efforts to bring about real and sustained progress."

The top retail leaders added: "We are committed to working with other global brands in order to achieve swift change. We'll use the power of the newly created alliance to find other sources of funding to support additional infrastructure improvement, including working closely with government agencies around the world."

They also stressed the need for increased Involvement with the Bangladeshi government to ensure lasting change.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has been set up as an alternative to the largely-European Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh being backed by 70 retailers and apparel brands.

The need for action and change was spurred by the collapse in April of the Rana Plaza factory building near Dhaka, with the loss of 1,129 lives.

Click here for further information about the Alliance and its plans.