Workers in Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of yet another massive effort to improve their lot. Will it work? And will it mean anything for workers in countries other than Bangladesh? The move is welcome, but it’s problematic.
According to a press release, an alliance of leading North American retailers has committed to a new plan, The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, intended to “dramatically improving factory safety conditions in Bangladesh.” The coalition includes Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, Gap, Hudson’s Bay Company, and a dozen other major retailers. That means, according to the press release, that the Initiative covers the “overwhelming majority of North American apparel imports.”
This new Initiative should not be confused with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a labour-led agreement that was announced in May, less than a month after the collapse of Bangladesh’s 8-story Rana Plaza, a tragedy that eventually claimed 1,129 victims. Signatories to that Accord included Europe’s two biggest clothing retailers, as well as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, and Canada’s Loblaw, but there were notable abstentions. Walmart, for instance, was criticized for declining to sign on.
The new Initiative “sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment.” Of particular note: “Within one year, 100 percent of all factories that conduct work with an alliance member will be inspected,” and members of the alliance have committed to refusing to do business with any factory deemed unsafe. And, in a worthy commitment to transparency, the alliance will make semi-annual progress reports public.
There is, of course, plenty of room for skepticism. Some will see this new Initiative as a PR move, albeit a rather expensive one. Members of the alliance have already committed $42 million, though of course that number has to be put into context by comparing it to the vast profit the alliance members derive from doing business in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment industry is a $19 billion-a-year industry. (Quick math: that means the size of the Alliance budget amounts to roughtly 0.2% of the size of the industry. That’s not necessarily the most relevant comparison, but it gives you a sense of scale.)
Another source of skepticism, for some, is that this is an entirely business-driven initiative, unlike the May Accord, which was driven by labour and which will be guided by a Board that includes representatives of both corporate and labour interests. The Board of the new Initiative is perhaps less clearly unbiased: the 9-member board will consist of “four retailers, four stakeholders who provide specific expertise, and an independent board chair.” Interestingly, however, the Initiative does include specific provisions not just to look after workers, in the paternalistic sense, but to empower them: it calls for members to support the election of Worker Participation Committees at all factories, along with the provision of anonymous worker hotlines to be administered by a third party.
I continue to wonder and worry that both the new Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative and May’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh represent a kind of Bangladeshi exceptionalism. Why are major retailers joining together in now two big agreements to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but in Bangladesh alone? Admittedly, Bangladesh is important—as far as the garment industry goes, it is second only to China among countries exporting Western brands. But still, it worries me that a factory collapse that could have happened in any number of developing nations has apparently drawn attention only to the fate of garment workers in one, admittedly needy, nation.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management