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.”