Labor Groups Question The Impact The Latest Bangladeshi Safety Pact Will Have

A group of American retailers have signed on to a plan to improve safety at Bangladeshi garment factories, but it's facing criticism.

Under pressure to take action to improve the safety conditions at Bangladeshi factories that make their goods, 17 American retailers including Walmart, Target, and Gap have signed on to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. However, the plan is already coming under fire from labor and human rights groups who say that the failure to include a third party monitoring system or any labor representation makes the plan, essentially, a “sham.”

The discussion over factory safety continues months after the Rana Plaza building collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 people in Dhaka. A fire in another factory in Bangladesh killed 112 people in November. In both cases, workers were making garments intended for sale by some of the biggest retail companies in the world. Walmart and Sears claim they didn’t know their goods were being made at Rana Plaza.

On Monday, 75 retail companies including H&M, PVH, the company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Sean John, signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The accord will provide funds for factories to dramatically improve their safety measures. The Guardian reports that, under this plan, a list of unsafe factories will be revealed within days. “International teams of fire and building safety inspectors, working with inspectors in Bangladesh, will inspect all the signatories supply factories within nine months to identify ‘grave hazards’ and the need for ‘urgent repairs.'”

Only three US companies signed on to this plan. Some say it’s because of money. Christy Hoffman, the deputy general of UNI Global Union, said signing on would result in only a “‘very, very small increase’ in the price of garments,” somewhere in the range of  two cents per T-shirt.

“That is what it costs to make things safe in Bangladesh,” she said.

USA Today says American retailers objected to being exposed to “unlimited liability” and lacked accountability for the money they were expected to spend to meet the plan’s standards. As it is, they’re putting up $42 million, with $100 million more in loans being made available. Split among these companies, that’s a drop in the bucket. The lives of many people, many breadwinners in a very poor country, are at stake.

Their plan received input from former Sens. George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe and the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, among others.

More important than all the names and titles that the American retailers are trotting out is the fact that, according to USAT, more responsibility is squarely placed on the Bangladeshi government. The same government that was unable to enforce building standards that led to the tragedy at Rana Plaza. They don’t even want to name names as it were, preferring to release only “aggregate reports” about the steps being taken to change things, rather than making individual reports public. That makes it easy to take shortcuts. And we’ve seen what happens when Bangladeshi factories take shortcuts.

Experts in both articles say that a failure to involve labor groups leaves a big gaping hole in the effort to exact real change in the safety of these garment workers. Rather, these 17 companies have chosen to do less so they can say they support safe factory conditions and take credit for the good while blaming the Bangladeshi government for anything that doesn’t go as planned.

Customers love cheap clothes, but they don’t want anyone to die so they can get them.