Walmart, Gap and several other US retailers met this week in Chicago to implement their independent Bangladesh factory safety plan, which was developed after multiple factory accidents, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 workers and injured hundreds.
The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety includes 20 North American apparel companies and retailers, industry associations, and non-governmental organizations, such as Macy’s and Target, as well as new signatories Costco, Intradeco Apparel and Jordache Enterprises. The organization has pledged to have safety standards in place by September 10, and claims to have already dispersed $45 million to hire safety inspection staff in Bangladesh.
The five-year, voluntary plan aims to train workers and inspect factories while requiring Bangladesh factory owners to pay for safety renovations. To help factories pay for this, the Alliance will provide $100 million in low-cost loans.
Former congresswoman and U.S. State Department arms control undersecretary Ellen Tauscher was recently named chairwoman of the Alliance, and brings significant leadership experience as an international negotiator, diplomat and policymaker.
“The respect Ellen has earned in Congress, the State Department, and the private sector will serve her well in the role as an independent leader and convener who can work with Alliance members and governments to pursue the critical safety mission and aggressive implementation schedule,” said Ambassador James F. Moriarty, an Alliance Board Member, and former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh.
“I am excited to be part of this unique public/private partnership between companies and stakeholders who want to materially change the safety and work conditions of tens of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers.” Tauscher said. “This is an enormous challenge, but one well worth the time, effort and investment, as it will not only provide real change for the Bangladeshi workers, but this Alliance endeavor could serve as a global model for collaboration.”
The Alliance has faced much criticism from members of the European-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which includes H&M, Zara and 70 other mostly European brands. The Accord is cites the Alliance's absence of labor representatives on its eight-member board and the emphasis on voluntary action rather than legally binding mandates.
"They are essentially asking the companies and factory owners to regulate themselves," said Scott Nova, executive director at the Worker Rights Consortium, who helped craft the Accord. "They want people to see this as an alternative plan, but it's no different than what companies have been doing without success for decades."
However, Tauscher disagrees. "It's really a model for future industries and this industry to do this kind of work with other countries to uplift worker safety and many other issues for workers around the world," she said. "This is a framework that is very new and it is a challenging paradigm, but I think everyone is aware of this and knows that it is very worthwhile and that it is very important to do."