US plan for Bangladesh factory safety 'a sham'

Retail giants' five-year agreement will fail because it has no teeth, say activists

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 2:57am


A plan developed by North American retailers including Gap and Wal-Mart to improve safety in Bangladeshi garment factories has been labelled a "sham" by workers' rights groups.

The two retailers are part of an alliance of 17 US and Canadian brands and retailers that have launched a five-year agreement as an alternative to a legally binding European accord backed by 70 international brands.

Murray Worthy, a sweatshops campaigner at War on Want, said: "Gap and Wal-Mart's safety plan is a sham, which won't make factories safe."

Both deals have been agreed after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in April in which more 1,000 people were killed when a factory collapsed. That disaster followed a series of fires and highlighted work conditions in the industry and the plight of millions of workers who are paid as little as £25 (HK$300) a month.

The North American deal promises to arrange the inspection of all factories used by the signatories within a year and to set up common safety standards by October.

The retailers promise to pay up to US$1 million a year each to support mandatory training for staff and managers, and for "worker participation committees" to deal with complaints about conditions.

Funds will also be set aside to help workers if factories have to be closed for improvements. Such repairs will be backed by more than US$100 million in low-interest loans and other capital from the retailers and brands.

Spokesmen for Gap, Wal-Mart, Target and VF Corporation, the owner of the Lee and Wrangler, which were involved in the deal, said it was transparent and designed to help workers.

Jay Jorgensen, the head of global compliance for Wal-Mart, said: "This alliance will move quickly and decisively to create uniform safety standards." He said the differences between North American and European legal systems meant that signing the IndustriALL-backed accord would potentially expose US and Canadian companies to "unlimited liabilities".

But critics said the American plan could not be "credible or effective" without the involvement of workers in its governance and lacked teeth without legal underpinning.

Meanwhile, "worker committees" in factories are thought to undermine workers' rights to join trade unions. They said North American companies including Abercrombie & Fitch and Tommy Hilfiger had signed the international accord despite facing the same legal issues.