Why are so many deadly incidents happening specifically in the Bangladesh garment industry?

Most of the 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh are not up to fire and building safety code – they are death traps. Any day more workers could be burned alive or crushed when a building collapses. Click here to read more about the infrastructure issues.

Why is this campaign focused on Gap?

  • Gap has had more than two years to shape up since a fire on December 14, 2010 at the That’s It Sportswear factory, one of their suppliers, killed 29 workers who were trapped inside. Gap’s monitors had repeatedly given a clean bill of health to the factory.
  • Human rights activists and labor groups have been calling on Gap to fix the factories in the rest of their Bangladesh supply chain since December 2010, but instead Gap is sticking with its own corporate-controlled voluntary initiative that lacks transparency, accountability, and worker voice. Gap initially promised to sign onto a meaningful fire and building safety agreement, but then backed out, announcing their own, go-it-alone initiative. Gap is using the same self-regulatory approach that they and other brands have used for two decades and that has failed to protect the safety of workers in Bangladesh: factory monitoring controlled entirely by Gap, with no transparency, no role for workers or their trade unions, no commitment to pay prices to suppliers that make it feasible for them operate responsibly, and no binding commitments of any kind.
  • Gap spent a year and a half haggling over a factory safety agreement with labor groups only to finally pull back from key protections:
    • They pulled back from making a binding commitment to worker groups to ensure safety improvements would be made in factories supplying Gap. (A binding commitment by brands to work with suppliers to ensure repairs are made and sufficient financing is provided is essential for a factory safety program to make a real difference. With such a commitment from the Rana Plaza buyers, the factories located at the building would have been able to call the brands and say “we have a crack in the building, the order will be late,” without needing to worry about losing orders in the next round.)
    • They pulled back from ensuring trade union representatives would have the access needed to train workers on safety procedures.
  • Gap walked away from the bargaining table knowing they would effectively hobble the safety initiative.
  • Gap Inc is one of the larger buyers from Bangladesh: it owns Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy.
  • Gap touts itself as a leader in social responsibility. Other corporations look to what Gap does on factory safety, meaning that if Gap had become a leader on factory safety, when negotiations between brands and labor groups started in 2011, other companies may have followed and the more recent disasters may have been prevented. In both the case of the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 workers and the building collapse at Rana Plaza that has killed more than 650 workers, things might have gone very differently if workers would have had access to the local trade unions’ safety trainers; a key part of this training would include empowering workers to exercise their right to refuse unsafe work.

What do you want Gap to do?

We want Gap to join with Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, PVH/Tommy Hilfiger and the dozens of other companies that have already joined the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. These are the core elements of the Accord:

  • Independent inspections by trained fire safety experts not controlled by the brands or the factories being inspected;
  • Public reporting of the results of all inspections;
  • Mandatory repairs and renovations to address all identified hazards – meaning that brands cannot continue to do business with factories whose owners refuse to ensure workers’ safety;
  • A central role for workers and unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and access to factories for unions to educate workers on how they can protect their rights and their safety, including their right to refuse unsafe work;
  • Contracts with suppliers that ensure sufficient financing and adequate pricing to cover the cost of eliminating deadly hazards and operating in a safe manner; and
  • A binding contract between the brands and worker representatives that make these commitments enforceable – so the brands have to follow through, even if it means increased costs or longer turnaround times on orders.

We are also calling on Gap to pay a total of $200,000 in compensation to the families of the seven workers who were killed in the October 8, 2013 fire at Aswad Composite Mills and for the roughly 50 injured workers. According to documents found on-site, the factory supplied cloth to Gap. The deputy manager of the factory also said that Gap used the factory.

What do you think about Gap’s announcement in October?

Read our response here.

Should Gap do what Disney did and pull out of Bangladesh?

No, read why here.

Where can I learn more about the fire and building safety issues in the Bangladesh garment industry?

Read International Labor Rights Forum’s report, “Deadly Secrets.”

Other than your groups, who else is calling on Gap to join the Bangladesh Safety Accord?

In addition to Bangladeshi and global unions, lots of prominent people and organizations are calling on Gap to sign onto the Acccord, including religious groups and investors, U.S. Representatives, Senators, and the European Parliament. The Accord enjoys broad support, including from the United Nations and the International Labour Organization.

What’s your response to Gap’s argument that the Accord exposes them to too much liability?

According to law professors James Brudney, Catherine Fisk, Jennifer Gordon and Cynthia Estlund, in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, “The only “liability” that derives from the accord is the enforceable obligation to abide by its terms. The global brands and retailers that have signed recognize the agreement must be legally enforceable so that all stakeholders will be accountable and will share the responsibilities associated with protecting workers’ lives through factory inspections, worker and management training, public reporting and remediation of hazards. These brands and retailers are all sophisticated and successful industry players. It is difficult to imagine that they would have agreed to sign if the arbitration provision raised unwarranted liability concerns.”

What do you make of the following statement from an article published in the Daily Star in Bangladesh? “Johan Lubbe, a legal adviser to the National Retail Federation, asserts that the Americans’ worries about litigation are legitimate. ‘The liability issue is of great concern, at least on this side of the Atlantic,’ Lubbe said. ‘For US corporations, there is a fear that someone will try to impose liability and responsibility if something goes awry in the global supply chain.’ For example, if a Bangladesh factory burns and workers die, the victims’ families, represented by zealous American lawyers, might seize on the legal commitments in the accord to file lawsuits in the United States against retailers that bought apparel from the factory.”

In the Accord, the parties are agreeing only that US courts can enforce the outcome of an arbitration conducted under internationally-respected rules and procedures. International arbitrations are a common business practice routinely utilized by private parties in situations where local justice systems lack the capacity or will to enforce the law, which is the case in Bangladesh.

Accord or not, there is always the risk that a US company whose business practices contribute to the deaths of innocent victims could be sued in the US by a victim or her family. That doesn’t necessarily mean the lawsuit has merit, and an overzealous lawyer can only sue a company, he cannot impose liability. Only a court may impose liability, and only when a law has been broken. Gap and the National Retail Federation have not identified any new causes of action that they think will result in their being held liable in a US court that are created by the Accord other than the limited right to enforce an arbitration agreement.

Finally, if a victim from Tazreen did choose to sue Walmart for the company’s failure to take meaningful action at Tazreen to fix the problems or at a minimum notify workers of its failure to address the violations, we are confident that US courts would be able to quickly and efficiently, and at comparatively very little cost to the taxpayers and Walmart, determine whether the company had any legal responsibility for the deaths in the Tazreen fire when Walmart failed to take meaningful action to help the workers after Tazreen failed their audits.

What’s your take on the new scheme that Gap and Walmart announced under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center?

Gap and Walmart seem to be desperately seeking to appear credible in the eyes of the American public by associating themselves with the good names of former Maine Senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe. Neither Senator has particular expertise in international labor rights, factory fires, or Bangladesh, but they do have a reputation for fair-mindedness and independence. The American public is smarter than what Gap and Walmart appear to think. Their corporate-driven plans for worker safety have failed for all the years they have been producing in Bangladesh and it will not all of a sudden be a fair plan just because Senators Mitchell and Snowe are connected to it.

It’s telling that Gap, Walmart and associated companies didn’t even pretend to include workers’ representatives when they met in secret on May 29th to develop this new public relations stunt. Details of the new scheme will not be publicly released until at least July, but that has not stopped Gap and Walmart from rushing to praise it.

There is no credible reason why retailers like Gap and Walmart should not join the 50 companies that have already signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and make a real commitment to worker safety. Instead, they continue to barrage the public with new programs and initiatives that simply repackage the failed programs of the past that led to the deaths of 1,127 workers at Rana Plaza.

What’s the difference between the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety?

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety mimics the Accord on Fire and Building Safety rhetorically, but omits the features that make an agreement meaningful. Below are the key differences between the two agreements.

1) Labor-management cooperation and role for worker representatives

The Alliance is a company-developed and company-controlled program “founded by a group of 17 North American apparel retailers and brands who have joined together to develop and launch the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative.” Worker representatives are not part of the agreement and have no role whatsoever in its governance. The Accord recognizes that, given the grave risks facing millions of workers in Bangladesh, there can be no credible or effective program without a central leadership role for worker representatives. The Accord was therefore developed by apparel companies and both Bangladeshi and global unions and labor rights NGOs. The Accord reflects genuine cooperation between labor and management and includes a central role for independent worker representatives in its implementation.

2) Cost of safety repairs and renovations

Under the Alliance, brands and retailers are not obligated to pay one cent toward the renovation and repair of their factories in Bangladesh. Companies are only obligated to pay administrative fees to cover a training program, overhead, etc. The mandatory costs for brands and retailers are capped from the start and limited to a maximum of $1 million per year. Beyond this, there are no financial obligations for alliance members. The Accord includes contractual commitments by signatory companies to ensure funds are available for all necessary safety renovations and repairs, based upon need, with tripartite system of checks and balances. While the Accord requires that brands and retailers finance the cost of renovations and repairs at every covered factory, under the Alliance Plan, it is factory owners who bear the responsibility of financing improvements. The only assistance for renovations referenced in the “Alliance” documents is a purely voluntary loan program over which the brands have complete control. If a factory fails to take advantage of the loan program and make repairs, Alliance members can simply terminate their contracts and repeat the cycle again at another factory.

3) Safety inspections

Under the Alliance, individual brands and retailers control the factory inspections. The only role of the “Alliance” is to propose standards and methods and accredit auditors. The brands and retailers choose the auditors, pay the auditors, and control the inspections. The supposed check on the company inspections will be a “spot check” system. Unfortunately, because the Alliance scheme involves no power sharing with worker representatives, but is instead an industry-controlled program, these “spot checks” will consist exclusively of corporations checking on the inspections of other corporations. If all of this sounds very similar to the failed “CSR” programs and auditing schemes that brands and retailers have been using in Bangladesh for more than a decade, that’s because it is. The Alliance preserves the very model that has failed workers for years and led to nearly two thousand deaths. The Accord requires that all factories covered by the Accord be subject to independent inspections and that remediation plans be completed within 9 months of inspections.

4) Membership obligations and enforcement

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety imposes few obligations on its members – and those it does impose are unenforceable. Under the terms of the “Alliance,” any company can walk away whenever it wants. The sole penalty for doing so is that the company has to pay part or all of its administrative fees, depending on how soon it chooses to quit. The total potential cost to the big players is a maximum of $5 million. Walmart has revenues in excess of $400 billion. For a company with billions of dollars in revenue, such a penalty is a minimal cost of doing business, not a serious deterrent. This confirms what labor rights advocates have long predicted: that Walmart, Gap and companies like them simply do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep. What they want is to be able to make promises now, at a time of major public and media scrutiny, that they can walk away from whenever it suits them, at a token cost. The Accord is a binding, legally enforceable contract. Worker representatives, who have a strong interest in enforcement, are signatories. Binding arbitration, backed up by the courts of the home country of the company in question, is used to resolve disputes and enforce company commitments. This ensures that companies must follow through on their commitment to make all of their factories safe. Under, the Accord, worker representatives have the power to initiate enforcement proceedings against companies that fail to comply with their obligations. In contrast, the only recourse workers have under the “Alliance” is to call a “hotline” or otherwise communicate their concerns to the brands and retailers who retain sole power and discretion.

5) Workers’ right to refuse dangerous work and entering a dangerous building

The Alliance scheme makes no mention of the right of workers to refuse dangerous work, leaving factory managers free to bully workers into dangerous buildings, like their counterparts did at Rana Plaza. In the wake of Rana Plaza, the vital importance of protecting this right should be obvious to every company doing business in Bangladesh. Under the Accord, the right of workers to refuse dangerous work, including the right to refuse to enter a dangerous building, is protected.

6) Endorsement

The Alliance has been endorsed by profit driven apparel industry groups: National Retail Federation, American Apparel and Footwear Association, Retail Council of Canada, Canadian Apparel Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association. The Alliance has made a cynical attempt at providing third-party cover for their scheme by enlisting the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), and two senators with financial ties with the BPC, former Senator George Mitchell and Senator Olympia Snowe, as sponsors. The Accord is supported by the UN Secretary General, the International Labor Organization, in addition to the Bangladeshi Government, US Senators and Representatives including the Senate Majority Leader and the House Minority Leader, the European Parliament, OECD National Contact Points, and numerous organizations representing garment workers in Bangladesh.

Which companies have already signed onto the Accord?

More than 160 companies have signed on to the Bangladesh Safety Accord, including Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, and H&M. Click here for the full list of signatories. These signatories include brands and retailers from 20 countries, with presence in nearly 2,000 factories in Bangladesh.