U.S. Retailers Promise Action on Bangladesh Factories – Will It Help?

Nearly four months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in history, American retailers (whose clothing is produced in Bangladesh factories) are finally announcing that they will take steps to prevent such accidents from happening again.

United under the umbrella of Alliance for Bangladesh Workers’ Safety, the retailers said they will release suggested safety standards for Bangladesh factories within a month. The Alliance also has pledged to complete inspections of the Bangladesh factories they use for clothing production.

The 20 companies that make up the Alliance, including Walmart and The Gap, have been facing criticism from workers’ rights groups. Unlike the Accord on Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety—signed soon after the tragedy, primarily by European retailers—the Alliance’s safety plan is voluntary and non-binding. The American plan does not make it clear if the companies will pay for any needed repairs, while the European plan does. Another concern is that the Alliance is not an independent body; it is completely controlled by the American garment industry. Even its board members are appointed by people within the industry. Scott Nova, executive director for the Workers Rights Consortium, said

They serve at the pleasure of the companies. This is not genuine independence.

Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), the Alliance’s chair, says she recognizes the inherent difficulty of fixing Bangladesh’s garment industry—which is riddled with low wages and poor working conditions—but remains optimistic:

Factories, in and of themselves, can never be made perfectly safe, but it is important that these people, the people of Bangladesh that go to work in these garment factories, can be made as safe as possible.

As Jason Motlagh and Susie Taylor pointed out in the new issue of Ms. magazine, American garment companies are infamous for doing a poor job of policing their factories; Walmart, for example, has been known to overlook fire hazards in the past. Until American companies are willing to aim for the stricter standards put in place by their European counterparts, the situation for Bangladesh garment workers are unlikely to significantly improve.

Picture of protesting Bangladeshi workers from Flickr user Abayomi Azikiwe under license from Creative Commons 2.0

For more information on the Rana Plaza collapse and garment workers in Bangladesh, check out “From the Ashes of Rana Plaza” in the new Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available now by subscription and on newsstands August 27. Join Ms. and receive a year’s worth of issues for your digital devices, or in the print version, or both!