Many North American clothing brands that refused to sign a union-backed safety agreement following April’s factory disaster in Bangladesh, have now formed their own alliance to improve worker safety in the country.
Family-controlled businesses Walmart and Gap are spearheading the alliance, which includes 17 companies in total. Family business L.L. Bean is also part of the agreement, as well as Target, Macy's and Sears.
More than 1,000 garment workers, producing merchandise for big name brands such as Walmart and Primark, died when the Rana Plaza collapsed due to structural failure.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster international unions IndustriALL and UNI Global drew up an agreement to implement a programme of fire safety reforms, independent inspections, worker-led health and safety committees, and importantly, give unions access to factories.
Several family-controlled brands including H&M, Indetex and Primark were among 70 brands that signed up to this first agreement but Walmart – famously opposed to unions – refused to sign.
The new Walmart-backed agreement lists its objectives as worker empowerment, fire and building safety training, and management and development and implementation of a common standard for inspections.
But in a statement IndustriALL said the agreement drawn up by the alliance falls short of the international, legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh drawn up by the unions.
It said: "Unlike the Accord, the Walmart/Gap initiative is unclear on enforceability and there is no commitment from the brands to stay in Bangladesh, nor is there full transparency."
Walmart – controlled by the billionaire Walton family – had refused to sign the initial agreement because it said requirements such as governance and dispute resolution mechanisms, and supply chain matters were better left to retailers, suppliers and government, and were unnecessary to achieve fire safety goals.
In a statement released following the establishment of the new alliance, the company said: "We believe companies and government have a responsibility to ensure that tragedies like those in Bangladesh do not happen again, and that we really can work together to empower government and private parties to act on dangerous safety conditions."
The members of the new alliance said they are raising the capital needed over the first five-year period to improve safety in the factory – they currently have a fund of $42 million (€32.2 million).