Survivors of the Rana Plaza factory collapse and relatives of those killed gather for a demonstration demanding compensation in November (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of 25 humanitarian, development and workers' rights organizations issued an open letter last night to some of Canada's biggest retailers asking them to sign onto an accord designed to improve worker safety conditions at clothing factories in Bangladesh.
Specifically, the letter asked the companies to join The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an independent, legally binding agreement signed by more than 100 apparel corporations worldwide, including Loblaw, which owns Joe Fresh.
The targets of the letter are all household names: Canadian Tire Corporation, Hudson's Bay Company, Sears Canada, Walmart Canada, Giant Tiger and Y.M. Inc., the company behind Bluenotes, Suzy Sheer, Urban Planet and more.
All six of the companies addressed by the letter are actually members of another group formed to address the same issue, the industry-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
According to the letter, however, "the Alliance’s factory inspection program appears not to be independent and seems to be identical to the discredited model used by individual companies over the past decade that has failed to detect and eliminate hazardous conditions that have resulted in numerous preventable factory tragedies and the deaths of hundreds of workers."
Both groups were formed in the wake of the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April which killed over 1,100 workers.
But according to Bob Jeffcott, policy advisor at the Maquila Solidarity Network, one of the organizations behind the letter, "this alternative initiative [the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety] that's been set up is a way of avoiding getting involved in the Accord."
The Alliance, Jeffcott told Strombo.com, "is much more company controlled," with owners responsible for choosing the companies that inspect the factories for them. "It creates a negative incentive for inspection organizations to not come back with too harsh reports," he said.
The Accord, on the other hand, is governed jointly by unions and companies, with the International Labour Organization acting as a neutral chair, creating "a firewall between inspecting organzations and the companies themselves."
Today, the Alliance put out a statement pointing out that it has worked directly with the Accord, as well as the International Labour Association and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, to establish common safety standards. "The initiative calls for inspections of 100 percent of Alliance member factories in Bangladesh within the first year," the statement says.
But the 25 organizations behind the letter, which also include Oxfam Canada, the Christian NGO Kairos and many unions, have other concerns about the Alliance as well.
Factory employees in Bangladesh do not currently have the right to refuse unsafe work, something which Jeffcott said could have significantly lessened the tragedy at Rana Plaza. "Many of them did not want to go to work, but they were ordered to go to work," he said. The companies that have signed the Accord have entered into a legally binding agreement to guarantee that right.
The Alliance told Strombo.com that under their plan, a worker safety "hotline" would be established to "provide a means for reporting safety concerns without fear of retaliation."
The 25 organizations say the Alliance is also less transparent about the inspection process, and doesn't make provisions for sharing those inspection reports with the public. For its part, the Alliance said in today's statement that "every month, the Alliance publicly discloses information about factories that have been inspected and information related to issues identified by the inspections, and factories’ progress on addressing remediation plans created." When asked whether individual factory reports would be made available, the Alliance told Strombo.com that the information would be released in the aggregate.
Another key concern is financial support for factory upgrades and for workers who might lose income during the upgrading process. Under the Accord, apparel companies have agreed to help underwrite the upgrades and have committed to continuing their orders at comparable volumes for two years, a requirement that doesn't exist under the Alliance.
"There's never been anything done like [the Accord] on this scale that's a legally binding agreement," Jeffcott said. Over 1,600 factories in Bangladesh will be covered under the arrangement, although so far Loblaw is the only Canadian company to sign on.
The letter was only sent last night, but some of the companies have begun to respond.
Walmart spokesman Alex Robertson told The Toronto Star that the company is “working every day to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. In fact, we did not have sourcing in the Rana Plaza factory specifically because it did not meet our safety standards.”
And Giant Tiger spokeswoman Alison Scarlett told the Star that it's currently reviewing the petition.
The Alliance, which describes itself as a "historic coalition of 26 global apparel companies from the U.S. and Canada," also said that "The Alliance and the Accord have a common goal: to improve the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh by upgrading factory fire and safety conditions. Both plans will significantly elevate safety and protect workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry."
Via The Toronto Star