Photo by Khurshed Rinku for Associated Press
On Friday, it’ll be a month since a devastating building collapse claimed the lives of 1,127 garment workers outside the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka. The Rana Plaza disaster will go down in history as a watershed moment for labor rights. In its aftermath, more than 40 of the world’s leading apparel companies—including Benetton, H&M, Topshop, and Zara—have agreed to hold themselves legally accountable for the safety and wellbeing of the people who make their products. Still, a number of retailers have declined to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which trade unions and labor-rights groups have dubbed superior to non-binding, corporate-controlled codes of conduct. Two naysayers in particular stand out: Walmart and Gap, both significant producers in the beleaguered South Asian nation.
SKIRTING THE PROBLEM
Walmart, the world’s No. 1 retailer, announced this month that it would be launching its own self-regulated initiative, while Gap, the third-largest apparel company after H&M and Zara, has cited concerns about liability related to legal enforcement of the agreement’s provisions. In fact, Gap has proposed that the penalty for most cases of noncompliance simply be expulsion from the program, in effect rendering a company’s participation in the agreement meaningless.
Walmart announced that it would be launching its own self-regulated initiative, while Gap has cited concerns about liability.
James Brudney and Catherine Fisk, law professors at Fordham Law School and University of California Irvine Law School, respectively, call the companies’ fears over their financial and moral commitments “irrational.”
“The only ‘liability’ that derives from the accord is the enforceable obligation to abide by its terms,” they wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Friday. “The global brands and retailers that have signed recognize the agreement must be legally enforceable so that all stakeholders will be accountable and will share the responsibilities associated with protecting workers’ lives through factory inspections, worker and management training, public reporting and remediation of hazards. These brands and retailers are all sophisticated and successful industry players. It is difficult to imagine that they would have agreed to sign if the arbitration provision raised unwarranted liability concerns.”
Retailers like Gap and Walmart sign legally enforceable agreements all the time, including with the factories that make their garments, according to Brudney and Fisk. “What is different here is the purpose of the agreement: The accord would help protect workers’ rights and workers’ lives rather than simply facilitate the buying and selling of apparel for corporate profit,” they said. “It would be unfortunate if that difference is what is keeping Gap, Walmart, and others from signing this crucial initiative.”
Although the financial commitments demanded by the accord are not trivial, the costs are “reasonable and quantifiable.” As for the moral agreement, there can be no debate. “If a firm profits by choosing to produce its garments in a country where wages are kept low by cost-cutting that imperils the lives of workers, the firm bears some responsibility for bringing those conditions into line with the most basic of human-rights standards,” they said. “The time has come for American industry leaders Gap and Walmart to do the same.”