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May 16, 2013

Can Worker Safety Momentum in Bangladesh Last?

by Pamela Dockins

Human rights and labor advocates are welcoming a joint agreement by clothing retailers and brand name companies that calls for improving conditions for garment factory workers in Bangladesh.  

Western retailers, most of them European, agreed to the plan after a building housing garment factories in Dhaka collapsed last month, killing more than 1,100 people.  

Some advocates, however, are concerned that efforts to improve working conditions in the country will fade as the Dhaka tragedy moves out of the news spotlight.

Amnesty International advocacy director T. Kumar said the steps that Western retailers have taken, so far, are remarkable.

But on VOA's Press Conference USA, he questioned if the momentum would last.

"Our fear is whether it will last long.  Whether it’s an immediate, knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

Western retailers agreed to a broad safety plan that requires them to conduct inspections and cover the costs of safety upgrades.

Top global brands such as Italy's Benetton and Sweden's H&M are part of the agreement, which was led by the International Labor Organization.

Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights director Charles Kernaghan said the new multinational safety agreement is a "turning point" for the garment industry, whose workers are mainly women.

“This is a game changer and it never would have happened if these poor young women were not crushed to death, and suffocated to death and burned to death in collapse of the Rana Plaza building,” he said.

He said there is "always the possibility" that retailer enthusiasm for monitoring safety standards could dim.

Kernaghan said while the Bangladeshi government has a role in enforcing safety and improving work conditions, the real power lies with the retailers who are supporting an industry that employs more than 4 million garment workers.

"The U.S. companies, North American companies, European companies are in Bangladesh specifically because it has the lowest wages in the world.  Twelve cents an hour for helpers, 22 cents for junior sewers, 26 cents for senior sewers, 13 to 14.5 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.  Basically the workers get just two days off a month," said Kernaghan.

The new agreement addresses some of these concerns by setting new standards for worker rights.

The provision calls for establishing an advisory board that will facilitate talks among governments, retailers and trade unions.  

It also sets up a fire and building safety training program.

Noticeably missing from the agreement is Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.  The U.S.-based company has come up with its own plan, which includes inspections of all 279 of its suppliers' factories in Bangladesh.

Also, the GAP chain of stores says it will not be part of the agreement unless changes are made to limit legal liability.

T. Kumar said the reluctance of these two U.S. companies to be part of the agreement is unfortunate.

“In the U.S., multinational corporations are very powerful and they resist any pressure upon them to tie them to any standards,” he said.

The National Retail Federation, the largest U.S. retailing association, called the agreement a "one-size-fits-all" approach that does not recognize how the industry operates in various parts of the world.

In a statement, the association said a North American worker safety group is crafting initiatives to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government said it is doing its part to improve safety.

Since the April building collapse, the government has shut down some garment factories for safety reasons.  The government has also announced plans to raise the minimum wage and enact measures that will allow for the easier formation of labor unions.

Amnesty’s T. Kumar welcomed these measures, but said the Bangladeshi government must follow through on promises to improve standards.  Local authorities must also enforce existing building codes and fight endemic corruption.

T. Kumar said he hopes the current momentum to improve worker standards in the country will continue and lead to policies that prevent multinational corporations from taking advantage of what he calls "cheap labor" and "weak legal systems."