In August, the Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety announced its appointment of the Honorable Ellen O’Kane Tauscher as chair of its board of directors. Tauscher is considered a noteworthy appointment, having enjoyed seven terms in Congress and a range of briefs, including arms control and advocating for women’s rights in Iraq. Unfortunately, the appointment will do little to quell the Alliance’s critics.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh earlier this year highlighted the need for significant improvements in worker safety and conditions. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the clothing sector in Europe and the US, many of whom use Bangladeshi factories for their cheaply produced garments. A comprehensive and enforceable action plan was clearly needed. In May, major European clothing companies announced the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Devised in close consultation with NGOs, global and local unions, and the respected International Labour Organisation, the Accord was championed for its robust and fair approach. Provisions include the continued payment of workers when safety improvements are being made to factories and the publication of inspection reports.
The Accord distributes seats on its Steering Committee equally between trade union signatories and company signatories, ensuring a multi-stakeholder approach inclusive of worker voices. Most importantly, Section 5 of the Accord states that any award made as a result of a dispute under its terms is enforceable in a court of law. It is a huge step forward to have a business initiative that actually has legal teeth.
Unfortunately, major North American retailers have backed away from the Accord and created their own programme instead; predictably, without those legal teeth. Walmart, Macy’s, Target and Gap are amongst those who have opted for this voluntary plan.
Unlike the Accord, the Alliance has no worker representation on its board. Comparing the two initiatives’ documentation lays out the difference: the Alliance describing its purpose as “to further their common business interests by strengthening worker safety conditions”; the Accord by contrast considering its goal “a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi ReadyMade Garment (“RMG”) industry in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures.”
The Alliance is fooling no one, with campaign groups and the media calling it out on its “empty promises”. More likely to bend these companies’ ears is the ire of their shareholders: in May, investors representing over £3.1 trillion in assets under management called on companies to join the Accord. We have yet to see what they will make of this watered down Alliance, ex-congresswoman or otherwise; for the 1,129 people who lost their lives on 29 April this year, let’s hope these companies rethink their position.
Emily Kenway works in the third sector promoting responsible practices by companies and investors. Prior to 2011, Emily was a professional opera singer before following her passion for sustainability into this new career. Her particular interests include the circular economy, environmental impacts, and the food industry.