Retail and Apparel Brands Move Forward With Separate Bangladesh Safety Pacts

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A mostly European coalition of 70 leading clothing brands, retailers and trade unions backed by the International Labor Organization and the IndustriALL and UNI global trade unions has announced the next steps for their precendent-setting, five-year Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

In a joint statement, EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht, ILO Director General Guy Ryder, and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dupi Moni “welcome(d) the fact that over 70 major fashion and retail brands sourcing RMG from Bangladesh have signed an Accord on Fire and Building Safety to coordinate their efforts to help improve safety in Bangladesh’s factories which supply them. In this context, they encourage other companies, including SMEs, to join the Accord expeditiously within their respective capacities.”

Their remarks were targeted at the brands that are holdouts from the European-dominated IndustriALL coalition. Indeed, only a handful of North American brands have signed the global accord, including PVH (owner of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and other apparel brands), Abercrombie & Fitch, Zac Posen and Sean John, as well as Canada’s Loblaw, which owns the Joe Fresh fashion label now sold in JCPenney stores across America.

By signing the finalized plan, which was released on Monday, the signatories vow to submit a list of names and addresses of all Bangladeshi factories used by July 15. The list, which is expected to total near 1,000 factories, will be made public along with inspection reports.[more]

If problems are identified within a location, an action plan will be immediately set into place to correct problems within nine months, as well as informing government officials and workers of the safety concerns. Under the agreement, workers will be paid while factories remain closed for repairs.

IndustriALL General Secretary Jyrki Raina stated: “A profound change is possible only with a strong coalition between trade unions, international brands and retailers, Bangladeshi authorities and employers, and with worker involvement in the workplace with guaranteed freedom of association.”

Those words will likely fail to sway Walmart, Gap Inc., Target and other American retail brands which have created an alternative coalition, The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, in partnership with the US National Retail Federation and other major trade associations within the garment industry. 

The US counter-response to the EU agreement is being aided by former U.S. Senators George J. Mitchell and Olympia J. Snowe, whose Bipartisan Policy Center think tank is shepherding the agreement — for a price, of course. (Update: more details in the coalition’s July 10th press release.)

The North American holdouts to the Bangladesh Accord, which have been criticized by fellow retailers, consumers and political figures over their decision to not participate in the IndustriALL agreement, are forming their own $50 million fund (update: $42 million) to support safety improvements in Bangladesh, arguing that their plan would be more cost effective and efficient than the proposed Accord.

A Walmart spokesman defended the move to the Guardian, arguing that the company had “taken a number of actions that meet or exceed other factory safety proposals” including strengthening safety standards, a “zero tolerance of unauthorised subcontracting” and “in-depth safety audits and remediations” made to every factory directly making its products.

However, an open letter from the International Labor Rights Forum, dozens of trade groups, organizations and individuals questioned the brands’ motivation for not complying with the widely accepted Accord. 

“Walmart, Gap, and many other US retailers have refused to sign because they do not want an enforceable agreement with Bangladeshi unions. They prefer to make only unilateral unenforceable commitments without accountability to workers.” The letter continued, “The Bangladesh Safety Accord is an unprecedented opportunity to improve conditions for Bangladeshi workers. Please do not let Walmart and Gap draw on you to legitimize an unenforceable, ineffective program. Tell them that a binding agreement with the unions in Bangladesh is the only way to save workers’ lives.”

In addition to North American retailers, participants in the Mitchell and Snowe response—which will be announced in Washington on Wednesday with senior executives from Gap Inc., Target, VF and Walmart according to a press release—include key trade associations: the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), National Retail Federation (NRF), Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and the Retail Council of Canada (RCC).

“What they are doing is distracting people from what workers need to ensure safe working conditions,” said Liana Foxvog, a spokeswoman for the International Labor Rights Forum. The alliance “is really a face-lift of corporate responsibility programs that have existed for decades. We’ve already seen the results of those programs.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif), a ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, cites fear of unions as a factor. “In Europe you have a much longer historical cooperative relationship between unions and manufacturers or owners,” stated Miller, who has been lobbying the US garment industry to do the right thing by Bangladesh workers. “They have a different value set on the rights of workers at work. It’s a different system.”

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, representatives from Europe, Bangladesh and the US met today in Geneva to discuss plans for improving safety conditions and fostering a more humane supply chain as well as the country’s trade benefits, those of which were revoked by the US last week in a move meant to place greater pressure on Bangladesh.

Just as the US late last month issued trade sanctions on Bangladesh over the treatment of garment factory workers, the EU has also threatened to suspend trade privileges, though observers doubt it will come to that. At today’s meeting in Geneva, Bangladesh officials promised the EU to recruit more factory inspectors, among other moves to protect workers and appease the international community, Reuters reported.

Pressure has been mounting on Bangladesh and brands alike since the tragic Rana Plaza collapse in April has in turn brightened the spotlight on working conditions in other countries like India and Cambodia, where Japanese sneaker company Asics is overhauling its monitoring policies in the wake of a factory collapse that killed two workers and injured a dozen more. The company has agreed to also compensate the victims’ families. 

Ron Pietersen, Asics’s senior general manager for legal and compliance, acknowledged that the brand may have been “naive” about suppliers in the past but will now take a “tougher” approach to ensure workplace safety in Bangladesh (with only one in ten garment factories deemed safe) is a priority, the Wall Street Journal reports

As for the government, garment industry and people of Bangladesh, one way or another, change is on the horizon. 

“Now the real work starts. The terms of reference and the rules of the Accord are set in place, we can now identify the best people and put together the team in Bangladesh who will be charged with carrying out this vital work,” said UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings, optimistically, today. “These are exciting moments. The world is watching.”

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