US retailers have tapped two former senators to lead a plan to improve safety in Bangladesh after a massive factory collapse, but activists on Friday called the effort a public relations stunt.
The initiative comes as US retail giants Walmart and Gap resist a safety agreement backed by a growing number of European brands that would require independent inspections and empower unions in the South Asian country.
Associations of retailers from the US and Canada said that George Mitchell, the former US Senate majority leader who brokered a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and former senator Olympia Snowe would guide discussions on “a new program to improve fire and safety regulations” in Bangladesh.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank cofounded by Mitchell, said on Thursday that the group of retailers would release a plan early next month.
The effort comes after 1,129 workers died after the nine-story Rana Plaza crumbled on April 24 despite previous safety concerns, shining a light on factory conditions in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment producer.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, and Gap say they are already making their own investments to ensure top-notch safety standards.
Walmart, which has committed to inspect all 279 of its Bangladeshi suppliers and publish the results, said in an e-mailed statement that it hoped to work with stakeholders “to improve the standards for workers across the industry.”
“Taking part in the development of this broader safety plan with other brands, retailers and the Bipartisan Policy Center, building upon our previously announced commitments, is part of that work,” it said.
Gap, which last year promised US$22 million for factory improvements, supports “a plan for long-lasting change for the garment industry in Bangladesh,” said Bill Chandler, the company’s vice president for global corporate affairs.
Labor activists say US retailers oppose the so-called Accord on Fire and Building Safety because it would set a precedent of binding commitments and union representation, potentially exposing them to lawsuits.
IndustriALL Global Union, which advocates for garment workers internationally, called the initiative “a sorry public relations exercise” at a time when more companies are signing on to the binding accord.
“The kind of voluntary initiative being put forward by Walmart and Gap has failed in the past and will again fail to protect Bangladeshi garment workers,” said Jyrki Raina, the group’s general secretary.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium, said Walmart and Gap wanted to show that they are taking action “without actually incurring any obligation” and regretted the roles of Mitchell and Snow.
“I think it’s unfortunate that those individuals are lending their names to such a cynical exercise,” Nova said. “I think it’s possible that they don’t fully understand, because their background is not in this issue, what these companies are really up to.”
US Representative Grace Meng, who took companies to task after the Rana Plaza tragedy, said the effort “was a good first step.”
“We hope that it will finally end the long greedy practice of US companies putting profits ahead of safety,” she said.
More than 40 companies, including major European brands such as Benetton, H&M and Mango, have agreed to join the safety accord. Only three US companies have signed — PVH, whose brands include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Van Heusen; Abercrombie & Fitch; and Sean John, the clothing line of “Puff Daddy” rapper Sean Combs.