A group of 17 North American apparel retailers, including Gap and Walmart, have announced a five-year plan to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh garment factories that supply their wares. Unveiled on Wednesday, nearly three months after of 1,129 workers died in a deadly building collapse just outside the capital of Dhaka, the so-called Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is being positioned as an alternative to the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh that trade unions, labor advocates, and other Bangladesh stakeholders help put together. While the original agreement gained the support of mostly European firms such as H&M, Benetton, and Zara in the aftermath of the disaster, several U.S. businesses expressed concerns over its legally binding nature.
PREVIOUSLY ON ECOUTERRE: Gap, Walmart Seek Alternative Plan for Factory Safety in Bangladesh
Photo by Nathan Weber for New York Times
Besides Gap and Walmart, the new alliance comprises the Canadian Tire Corporation, Carter’s, The Children’s Place, Hudson’s Bay Company, IFG Corp., JCPenney, The Jones Group, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Public Clothing Company, Sears, Target, and VF Corporation. More significantly, it has the blessing of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Canadian Apparel Federation, the National Retail Federation, the Retail Council of Canada, Retail Industry Leaders Association, and the United States Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel.
The safety fund currently stands at $42 million; 10 percent has been set aside specifically to assist workers displaced by factory improvements.
Funding for the North American plan, which the group describes as “transparent, results-oriented, measurable, and verifiable,” will scale up according to the output of each retailer in the South Asian country. The safety fund currently stands at $42 million “and growing,” with 10 percent set aside specifically to assist workers temporarily displaced by factory improvements or who lose their job after a facility closes for safety reasons.
“As leaders in the apparel industry, we understand the complex challenges that surround the garment industry in Bangladesh,” the group says in a press release. “The safety record of Bangladeshi factories is unacceptable and requires our collective effort. We can prevent future tragedies by consolidating and amplifying our individual efforts to bring about real and sustained progress.”
Not everyone is impressed, however. Sweatshop campaigners describe the program as a superficial attempt to mimic the original accord, while omitting the features that make the agreement meaningful.
Campaigners describe the program as a superficial attempt to mimic the original accord, while omitting the features that make the agreement meaningful.
“Gap and Walmart’s safety plan is a sham which won’t make factories safe and only serves to undermine the Bangladesh Safety Accord, already signed by over 70 major brands and retailers,” says Murray Worthy of War on Want. “Their plan is full of flaws; the results of the audits won’t be made public, so they can’t be verified, the plan isn’t legally binding, so there is not guarantee anything will actually change, and the plan excludes trade unions, the representatives of workers who need to be at the heart of any plan to make factories safe.”
A joint statement from the Worker Rights Consortium, Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, and United Students Against Sweatshops also cites reservations about the North American scheme. “This is a company-developed and company-controlled program,” it says. “Worker representatives are not part of the agreement and have no role whatsoever in its governance. Given the grave risks facing millions of workers in Bangladesh, there can be no credible or effective program without a central leadership role for worker representatives, as in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.”
This alliance of brands imposes few obligations on its members, and those it does impose are unenforceable, the organizations add. “Under the terms of the ‘alliance,’ any company can walk away whenever it wants,” the statement reads. “The sole penalty for doing so is that the company has to pay part or all of its administrative fees, depending on how soon it chooses to quit.”
Other fines amount to little more than slaps on the wrist, the statement notes. “The total potential cost to the big players is a maximum of $5 million,” it says. “Walmart has revenues in excess of $400 billion. For a company with billions of dollars in revenue, such a penalty is a minimal cost of doing business, not a serious deterrent. This confirms what labor rights advocates have long predicted: that Walmart, Gap, and companies like them simply do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep. What they want is to be able to make promises now, at a time of major public and media scrutiny, that they can walk away from whenever it suits them, at a token cost.”