After clothing brands for many Western-owned retailers were found in the rubble of an eight-story garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh last month, many fashion brands have announced plans to improve worker safety. The collapse killed more than 1,100 people and more than 2,500 people were rescued in the wreckage.
Since garment factories in third-world nations like Bangladesh are — for their cheaper labor costs — a popular choice for many brands, including H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Helly Hansen and several others, many retailers have come together to sign a legally binding agreement pledging their financial support to improve the safety and conditions for garment workers.
One U.S. retail giant noticeably absent from the agreement was Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose clothes were found in the rubble as well. After the building collapsed, the retail giant initially announced it was phasing out the use of factories for their clothes. But in the wake of this recent agreement, the company now says it has created its own agreement, which the company says goes beyond the agreement signed by other brands.
About 5,000 factories in the country employ 3.6 million garment workers, partly because of a large demand in the U.S. for cheap clothes. Clothing manufacturers once based in the U.S. have outsourced many jobs to less-regulated countries, like Bangladesh, in the past two decades to reduce costs for consumers.
The fire and building safety plan signed by numerous retailers was drawn up by unions in Bangladesh and initiated by IndustriALL Global Union, after meeting with 40 garment buyers on April 29 in Germany. Wal-Mart was one of those retailers in attendance that discussed ways to improve safety conditions in the country, but says the agreement was “unnecessary to achieve fire and safety goals” and questioned the “governance and dispute-resolution mechanisms.”
“Our strong presence in Bangladesh gives us the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community’s development,” H&M spokeswoman Helena Helmersson said in a statement.
She added that by being on site in Bangladesh and putting demands on manufacturers and working for improvements, “we can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes.”
A statement from Wal-Mart said: “The company, like a number of other retailers, is not in a position to sign the IndustriALL accord at this time.
“While we agree with much of the proposal, the IndustriALL plan also introduces requirements, including governance and dispute resolution mechanisms, on supply chain matters that are appropriately left to retailers, suppliers and government, and are unnecessary to achieve fire and safety goals.”
Instead, Wal-Mart says it will inspect all 279 factories the company uses in Bangladesh within the next six months and publish the findings immediately. Executives for Walmart say their plan is much better for the country and garment workers since the IndustriALL deal only requires brands inspect 65 percent of their factories and have 45 days to publish the findings.
But Wal-Mart’s approach doesn’t do anything to address the lack of financial resources to implement fire and safety regulations or promise to blacklist any factories that are unwilling to comply with the improved safety standards.
Sam Maher from Labour Behind the Label, said:
“Wal-Mart’s so-called new programme is simply more of the same ineffective auditing that failed to prevent the Rana Plaza disaster, or the deaths of 112 workers at Tazreen, who were producing Walmart goods.
“The changes demanded by the IndustriALL accord include ensuring that factories are provided with the incentives and investment needed to actually make factories safe and are essential for any real change to occur. What Wal-Mart are demanding is business as usual: a business that has cost lives of over 1,300 workers in the last six months alone.”
Wal-Mart’s decision to not sign the agreement left its clothing brand, George at Asda, in an uncomfortable situation, since the brand is a founding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in the U.K. The ETI is the U.K.’s biggest alliance of businesses, trade unions and voluntary organizations, and has recommended its members sign the agreement.
Reportedly 20 percent of the George at Asda apparel is produced in Bangladesh. A spokeswoman for the company said: “We are making investments into increasing wages, promoting female empowerment, supporting communities, health and safety initiatives and better working conditions.”
The unsigned …
While many companies signed the agreement, Wal-Mart is not the only retailer opting to not sign the document. Several U.K. brands, including River Island, Matalan and Peacocks have opted to not sign the pledge as well — and have been criticized for their decision.
Philip Jennings is the general secretary of UNI Global Union, which helped draft the proposals. In a statement, he said that “the clock is ticking for companies to show they care about their Bangladeshi supplier workforce. Their corporate reputations may be on the line but more importantly, so are the lives and livelihoods of these vulnerable factory workers in Bangladesh.”
“I think they are running out of excuses,” Maher said. “No company can say they have the interests of their workers at heart if they can’t sign up.” He went on:
“If H&M, Tesco and M&S can sign, why can’t Next and Arcadia? They have production in Bangladesh and have just as much responsibility to invest in those factories and ensure those workers are safe. Those that have signed have proved this is not an impossible demand.
“Are 1,200 dead workers not enough to make them realise something needs to be done?”
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