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June 17, 2013

Most US Retailers Choose Not to Sign Bangladesh Factory Accord

by Deborah Block

The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh in April that killed more than 1,200 people has brought greater pressure to increase garment building safety and worker protections.  A number of European fashion companies have signed an accord to address workplace safety.  But, most U.S. retail firms have not signed the pact.

The factory fell just days after it was considered unsafe, but employees were told to come to work anyway.  

U.S. Congressman George Miller, a long-time advocate for garment workers’ rights, recently visited the site.  He also put blame on the retail industry, which he says pits one factory against another to drive the prices of apparel to its lowest level.

“So the factory owners are under stress all the time about whether they're going to get a new contract.  That doesn't leave a lot of room for improvements in working conditions in factories. That really hampers the ability of the factory owners in upgrading their factories," said Miller.

The Rana Plaza tragedy has created a call for action.  This includes the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh that legally binds apparel retailers to having independent building and fire safety inspections in factories.

Congressman Miller is urging U.S. retail firms to sign the pact, but so far, only a few have.   However, some 40 European companies have signed it, and Congressman Miller explains one reason why.

“Many of the American firms use middle men.  Anytime something bad happens in a factory they say that was unauthorized, where Europeans, in many instances, put people in the factories to monitor what's taking place," he said.

U.S. firms are concerned about their legal liability, says global trade expert Kimberly Elliott.

“They may be more concerned than the European firms about actually being sued.  They don't want to have it be that it's their responsibility to pay for health and safety for factories that they don't own," said Elliott.

Instead, these clothing firms, including the giant Walmart company and fashion retailer the Gap, want to continue self-regulation.   Both Walmart and the Gap told VOA they were not available for TV interviews.  But in a statement, a Gap spokesperson said while the company shares the goals of the accord, it also believes the Bangladeshi government and local industry and worker representatives need to be included.  

Elliott says the garment factory collapse and a massive fire at another clothing factory in Bangladesh 5 months earlier show that self-regulation isn't working.

“We're still having big problems in the garment sector.  There have been improvements.  Some of the programs are better than others, but it's not a solution. I think it's more about protecting the brand than improving conditions," she said.

A U.S. State Department official says American retail companies need to make their own decisons as to whether they will sign the accord.