The gruesome garment factory disasters in Bangladesh, including a fire that claimed the lives of more than 112 in Tazreen and a building collapse that killed over 1,100 in Dhaka while maiming countless more, has brought international pressure on Western retailers and their partners in Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry. While more than seventy European and North American companies have signed onto a strong agreement with local Bangladesh and international labor NGOs for sweeping new safety standards (known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety), many large US-based retailers have refused to play ball, preferring instead to rollout their own, competing agreement.
Yesterday morning, the competing agreement—sponsored by Walmart, Target, Kohls’s Corp, L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Gap, Sears and other companies—was unveiled at the Bipartisan Policy Center by former Senators Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell. A joint statement from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win swiftly condemned the rival agreement as “yet another ‘voluntary’ scheme with no meaningful enforcement mechanisms” and a “product of a closed process and has been signed only by the same corporations that produced it.” The union says labor was not involved in the Walmart- and Gap-led agreement.
The rival plan, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, according to a blueprint released on Wednesday, provides retailers with less responsibility for fixing factory safety violations. Unlikely the European-based Accord, which stipulates that retailers provide direct funds for safety improvements, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s plan “would work closely with the factory owners, the government of Bangladesh and various governments and aid agencies to figure out ways to finance safety improvements,” according to The New York Times. The Walmart- and Gap-led plan would pay for upgrades largely through a voluntary low-interest loan program, and retailers have the option of dropping out of the agreement at any time.
Labor activists have also noted that the Bipartisan Policy Center plan differs radically from the European Accord on safety inspections. The Accord requires independent safety inspectors hired with the involvement of workers, along with binding commitments that urgent repairs are done in the next 9 months, while the Bipartisan Policy Center’s plan calls for inspectors to be chosen from a board of directors developed by the retailers.
Notably, both Senators Snowe and Mitchell kicked off the press conference yesterday morning by stressing that they were brought into the effort as “independent facilitators.” Snowe said in her opening remarks that she and Mitchell acted as “an independent voice in facilitating this Alliance.” Both senators will continue to play an oversight role to verify the “effectiveness” of the rival agreement over the first two years. After the release of the US retailer–led plan, most media outlets protrayed the two senators’ involvement as “independent.”
As TheNation.com reported on Tuesday, the Bipartisan Policy Center, of which Snowe and Mitchell are officials, has received financial donations from Walmart and from lobbying firms representing major retailers involved with the rival plan.
Asked by Nation intern Samathan Lachman about the conflict of interest at the press conference yesterday, Bipartisan Policy Center president Jason Grumet responded, “The BPC is principally funded by charitable philanthropy, our processes are transparent with a diversity of participation. Like you, we all have to keep the lights on. We take pride that industry, NGO’s, the left, the right, people who don’t agree with each other, all seek to come work with us here.”
The non-answer about the Bipartisan Policy Center’s funding belies a lobbying blitz throughout Washington, DC.
An hour and a half after the the Bipartisan Policy Center released its Alliance plan, a meeting was convened on Capitol Hill to promote the effort to congressional staffers. According to an invitation leaked to The Nation, Charlie Scheeler, a government affairs staffer, senior counsel with DLA Piper, a law and lobbying firm, hosted the event at 11:30 am in the Cannon House Office Building. DLA Piper is also the firm where former Senator Mitchell is a partner. Repeated requests for comment about DLA Piper’s involvement in the process, whether the firm is being paid by the retailers or their affiliates to promote the alternative safety plan, were not answered. A staffer with the firm directed our questions to the DLA Piper office in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Bill Chandler, vice president for global corporate affairs at Gap Inc., however, told The Nation over the phone in an interview Wednesday afternoon that Gap has a “business relationship” with DLA Piper. “We’re very pleased with the way the process unfolded and the role the two senators in this discussion and it was very robust and I think the retailers appreciate the time and commitment the senators made,” said Chandler. On how the Bipartisan Policy Center or Senator Mitchell could provide impartial guidance to the Alliance given the financial ties to the retailers, Chandler said, “When the senator gets involved in a project, he provides an independent perspective that is not linked to any business that DLA might have,” adding, “Senator Mitchell’s reputation is one of the most steller in the field and he provides independent facilitation and we appreciate the time and commitment that he provided.”
Questioned about the closed-door meeting in the Cannon House Office Building with another DLA representative, Charlie Scheeler, Chandler responded, “You know, I was happy to speak to the overall specifics. but what’s important today is the plan that’s been put forward that was independent, independently facilitated and I think was a robust plan. And I think Senators Mitchell’s and Snowe’s reputation is very strong in this regard, and you know we’re very proud that they participated in it. Sorry, I don’t have anything more to say to that.”
The rollout of the alternative Bangladesh retailer agreement yesterday was boosted by other retailer groups and their representatives.
Wednesday morning, a website touting the rival plan went live. According to DomainTools.com, it was registered by an official with the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group led by executives from the retail industry, including Target. Disclosures show the AAFA has spent large sums this year on lobbying on labor issues in Bangladesh.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Heritage Foundation hosted an economic and policy event focused on Bangladesh along with experts and officials from Bangladesh and the State Department. Though Heritage’s Walter Lohman described the event’s timing on the same day as the rival safety agreement announcement as a “coincidence,” he welcomed the retailer’s approach in his opening comments.
One of the panelists, Shamarukh Mohiuddin, said she viewed the US retailer–led safety agreement as a “step in the right direction,” suggesting it was in the same range as the one proposed by mostly European retailers. Mohiuddin worked for several years at the same firm, Fontheim International, as her co-panelist Ed Gresser. Left unsaid at the Heritage event was that Gresser’s consulting firm, Fontheim International, helps retailers like the Gap and Walmart negotiate trade and labor deals throughout the globe.