Unions call Walmart and Gap Bangladesh safety plan “toothless”

Unions that negotiated the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety called an alternate plan, “toothless.” The alternative plan was  announced on July 10 by a group of North American companies led by Walmart and the Gap.

The unions two days earlier had announced that 80 retailers, fashion brands, and non-government organizations had agreed to the terms of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

The accord mandates  inspections by independent fire and safety experts, requires Western companies whose garments are made in Bangladesh to pay or provide alternative financing for fire protection and safety upgrades, and requires those companies to continue doing business in Bangladesh for at least two years.

Unlike previous worker safety attempts, the accord gives workers and their unions an important role in improving factory safety.

The accord is also unique in another way. “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety . . .  provides assurance through a legally binding process that the commitments to inspect and improve garment factories will be carried out,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, one the worker organizations that negotiated the accord.

The Walmart and Gap initiative like previous safety initiatives relies on voluntary compliance, does not commit companies to pay for safety upgrades or to remain in Bangladesh, and does not allow for any significant role for workers or their unions.

Negotiations that resulted in the accord were given more urgency after more than 1,100 workers died in the April collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh.

Six months earlier, 112 workers died in a fire at a Tazreen Fashion Designs factory making clothes for Walmart and other Western companies.

The International Labor Rights Forum reports that between 2005 and the Tazreen fire in 2012, more than 700 Bangladeshi workers had been killed in garment factory fires.

In addition to IndustriALL, UNI Global Union and the Bangladesh Council of Trade Unions negotiated the agreement. Three Bangladesh garment workers unions, the National Garment Workers Federation, the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation, and the Bangladesh Revolutionary Garment Workers Federation, are affiliates of IndustriALL.

A list of the companies signing the accord can be found here.

Four US companies were among the accord’s original signatories : Sean Jones Apparel; H&M, the largest buyer of Bangladesh garments; PVH, whose brands include Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein; and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Another US company, American Eagle, announced on July 12 that it was signing the accord. The announcement came after members of UNITE HERE, a US affiliate of IndustriALL and UNI, handbilled more than 40 American Eagle stores and collected more than 12,000 signatures on a petition urging the company to sign the accord.

Instead of signing the accord, Walmart, Gap, and other major US retailers agreed among themselves to implement their own fire and safety program.

They named their group the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

Among other things, the group proposes making loans available for safety upgrades and creating a hotline for workers to make anonymous safety complaints.

The companies have also pledged to do business only with manufacturers that comply with safety inspections.

Like previous efforts, these measures rely on voluntary compliance.

But voluntary compliance has not been effective.

Ten years ago, Western companies agreed to the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which among other things called for regular safety audits of garment factories. But according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, “Audits of two factories in the Rana Plaza building. . .  carried out against the BSCI code of conduct completely failed to identify the illegal construction of the building that led to the loss of at least 1,131 lives.”

“Voluntary initiatives have proved insufficient as 1,800 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires and building collapses during the past seven years,” said Raina.

The safety inspections mandated by the accord, on the other hand, must be completed within the next 90 days. When an immediate threat to worker life or limb is spotted, accord signatories will be notified and factory owners will be required to cease operations until the defect is corrected.

“The signatory companies to the accord are making serious and sincere commitments to working with trade unions to clean up their production chain in Bangladesh,” reads a statement by UNI. “They can all be held up as standard-setters in the industry.”

Raina added that real worker safety in Bangladesh will happen only when workers have the unencumbered right to join unions and those unions, international brands, the government, and employers work together to make Bangladesh free of unsafe sweatshops.

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