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US firms seek voluntary factory safety deal

Following deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh, major retailers want 'opt-in' rather than binding safety standards.

Last Modified: 03 Jun 2013 09:57
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Washington, DC - Top US companies are now in negotiations to agree on new safety standards for their clothing-producing contractors in Bangladesh, after a garment factory's collapse in Dhaka killed more than 1,100 workers in April.

The move comes after these companies, most prominently including Walmart and Gap, refused to sign on to a fire and safety standards agreement, announced weeks ago, that has received wide backing among European companies. Yet labour advocates are disparaging the new talks, suggesting the results will likely not be binding and thus will not be able to ensure worker safety.

"Walmart is … undermining the constructive efforts of other companies," said Jyrki Raina, general-secretary for IndustriALL Global Union, an umbrella of unions with 50 million worldwide members that has led the European agreement process. "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."

The new discussions, announced last Thursday, are being sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a Washington-based think-tank, and are co-chaired by two respected former US senators, George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe. The negotiations also include several US and Canadian trade associations.

Bangladeshi garment workers [Al Jazeera]

"Over the next several weeks, we look forward to building on [past] efforts … and seeking input from key stakeholders to forge an effective response," Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said.

Currently, the process is aiming to come up with a final agreement on new standards for Bangladeshi contractor factories by July. The BPC did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

"We are hopeful that … these discussions will result in a plan for long-lasting change for the garment industry in Bangladesh," said Bill Chandler, vice-president of global corporate affairs for Gap, Inc..

"We believe the American alliance can be a powerful path forward to achieve lasting change in Bangladesh, and will build upon the work that is already underway."

A spokesperson for Target also confirmed the company's involvement in the BPC-facilitated talks process.

A Walmart spokesperson emphasised the company had already taken "a number of actions that meet or exceed other factory safety proposals". But he also noted Walmart's belief that "there is a need to partner with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry".

Non-binding 'not good enough'

This interest in entering into new negotiations appears to be motivated particularly by public pressure following the companies' refusal to sign on to the European Union accord, which now has more than 40 corporate backers, including three US companies.

That agreement would include financing to upgrade factories as well as independent inspections. In addition to concerns over potential costs and the prospect of court litigation, a key sticking point for US companies over the EU proposal has been that the agreement would be legally binding.

According to documents on Gap's corporate website, for instance, in mid-May the company was "ready to sign on today with a modification to a single area - how disputes are resolved … With this single change, this global, historic agreement can move forward with a group of all retailers, not just those based in Europe".

This is the latest, and probably most sophisticated, in a series of industry public relations gambits designed to deflect attention from the real issue: the refusal of these companies to make a binding commitment to clean up their factories in Bangladesh

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium

Yet it is because of this stance - reportedly repeated at a Gap shareholder meeting on May 21 - that observers are now sceptical that a company-led negotiation process may be able to result in a strong and legally enforceable agreement.

"Forty retailers from all over the world … have agreed to a binding comprehensive safety plan for Bangladesh," the AFL-CIO, one of the largest labour unions in the United States, said last week, noting its "deep concern" about the new BPC-led talks.

"No amount of bipartisan window dressing can change the fact that Walmart and the Gap have refused to take this important step. This is a matter of life or death. Quite simply, non-binding is just not good enough."

Such concerns are heightened by the fact that, currently, no worker-rights organisation is included in the talks.

"This is the latest, and probably most sophisticated, in a series of industry public relations gambits designed to deflect attention from the real issue: the refusal of these companies to make a binding commitment to clean up their factories in Bangladesh," Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an advocacy group, said in an email.

"This shows the pressure these corporations are under and their recognition that the failed inspection schemes they have been touting no longer have any public credibility. Unfortunately, their goal has not changed: they are still looking for political cover so they can preserve the very lucrative status quo."

Corporate-led process

Concerns over corporate-led international labour and safety programmes have received boosts from US lawmakers in recent days. Last week, Representative Sander Levin warned that the oversight process has "been left up to the retailers, suppliers and government all these years, and that hasn't worked".

On May 15, Levin and two dozen members of Congress wrote to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, urging that her government put "the highest priority on aggressively enacting and enforcing comprehensive reforms … including the right to organise and form unions".

The lawmakers also noted: "It is critical that all key stakeholders take action."

Reports in recent days have suggested that the US State and Labor Departments are currently arguing over how hard to push the Bangladeshi government on these issues. Unions and some advocacy groups are pressuring the US to revoke certain bilateral trade concessions given to Bangladesh, though critics say doing so would give up important leverage for change.

For now, Washington, seemingly led by the embassy in Dhaka, has chosen not to back the EU accord, although the US State department says it is urging Bangladeshi officials to institute a suite of labour reforms.

"We need a lot more from the US government - why the embassy has decided not to endorse the EU standards is beyond me," said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a watchdog group.

"Of course, we have to remember that even the EU accord hasn't put any emphasis on workers' right to organise. It's only workers themselves that can win their rights, and they can do so only once they have the right to organise and bargain collectively. The US government needs to do far more on two issues: binding agreements on safety codes and the right to organise."

A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.

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