A plan developed by North American retailers including Gap and Walmart in an attempt to improve safety in Bangladeshi garment factories has been labelled a “sham” by workers’ rights groups.
The two retailers were part of an alliance of 17 US and Canadian brands and retailers which on Wednesday launched a five-year agreement as an alternative to a legally binding accord backed by 70 international brands including Marks & Spencer and Primark as well as unions led by IndustriALL and UNI.
Murray Worthy, a sweatshops campaigner at War on Want, said: “Gap and Walmart’s safety plan is a sham which won’t make factories safe.”
Both deals have been agreed in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in April in which more 1,000 people were killed when a substandard factory building collapsed. That disaster followed a series of fires at garment factories and highlighted the working conditions in the country’s £13bn-a-year garment industry and the plight of millions of workers who are paid as little as £25 a month.
The North American deal promises to arrange the inspection of all factories used by the signatories within a year and the establishment of a common set of safety standards by October this year.
The retailers promise to pay up to $1m a year each to support mandatory training for factory staff and managers and to support “worker participation committees” in every factory to deal with complaints about working conditions.
Funds will also be set aside to help workers if factories have to be closed for improvements. Such repairs will be backed by over $100m in low-interest loans and other capital provided via the retailers and brands.
Spokespeople for Gap, Walmart, the US retailer Target and VF Corporation, the owner of the Lee and Wrangler denim brands, which were involved in the deal, said it was transparent and designed to help workers.
“The plan is a significant step toward achieving safer factory conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh,” said Glenn Murphy, the chairman and CEO of Gap.
Jay Jorgensen, the head of global compliance for Walmart, added: “This alliance will move quickly and decisively to create uniform safety standards.” He told a press conference that 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 and organise freely. They pointed out that North American companies including Abercrombie & Fitch and Tommy Hilfiger had signed the international accord despite facing the same legal issues.
In a joint statement, IndustriALL and UNI said: “This is another toothless corporate auditing programme for Bangladesh factory safety.”
They said that under the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh brands had guaranteed funds to help upgrade factories while the American deal limited brands’ and retailers’ liability and costs. Each brand has promised up to $500,000 a year towards rigorous independent factory inspections and the installation of fire safety measures under a five-year plan.
Christy Hoffman, UNI’s deputy general secretary, said: “Walmart are bringing their discount practices to factory safety. This is not a price war; this is about people’s lives. Walmart has dragged Gap and a number of other brands down the wrong track. We now urge the Walmart/Gap initiative to think again and raise its standards to those of the accord.”