Thursday, 11 July 2013

Cutting Costs, Ignoring Safety

The horrors of the Bangladesh building collapse in May, which cost numerous garment workers their lives, brought international attention to the sorry state of workplace safety amongst Bangladesh workers. The heightened attention to these concerns led to the development of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was developed and signed by global unions and 70 major fashion companies.

Seventeen retailers, the largest of which is Walmart, distinguished themselves by refusing to sign the Accord. These 17 companies use labour from the Bangladesh garment industry to produce items sold in their stores, enjoying a fat profit margin in the process.

This alone might lead one to expect they would care for the workers enough to sign on to the Accord. Yet instead of signing the Accord, Walmart and the other retailers chose to propose their own plan to improve workplace safety[1]. The plan was revealed yesterday and is a tremendous, if unsurprising, disappointment.

The Accord is a major step forward for the safety of Bangladeshi workers. Unions have a large part in governing the Accord and worker representation is recognized as being vital to the success of the Accord and the improvement of workplace safety conditions. The plan proposed by Walmart and the other retailers, on the other hand, was developed without any real input from unions and does not involve any meaningful participation of representatives of the workers. It is a plan unilaterally developed by business interests without due regard for unions or workers[2].

Scott Nova, executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium, is equally unenthused with the plan:

Walmart, Gap and the corporations that have chosen to join them, are unwilling to commit to a program under which they actually have to keep the promises they make to workers and accept financial responsibility for ensuring that their factories are made safe[3].

The Accord gives workers the right to refuse dangerous work or to enter dangerous buildings. This right alone could have averted the disastrous building collapse in May, sparing countless lives. Despite the obvious benefit of this provision of the Accord, the retailers’ plan says nothing of the rights of workers to refuse such dangerous situations.

Another benefit of the Accord is transparency. The Accord requires that factory inspection reports be made available to representatives of workers. It also requires workers’ representatives to be immediately notified of any imminent threats to worker safety. The retailers’ plan rejects such transparency, preferring an opaque approach. Under this plan, factory inspection reports will be made available to workers’ representatives only where there are plans to remediate[4]. If there are no plans to remediate a situation, workers may never know of a danger until it is too late. The retailer’s initiative represents another in a long line of choices by Walmart that demonstrate a stony disregard for the safety of workers.

If Walmart wants to prove it is committed to workplace safety it will admit the flaws in its own plan and sign the Accord instead. But the company has a track record of putting profits before people. UNI Global Union Deputy General Secretary, Christy Hoffman puts it this way:

Walmart are bringing their discount practices to factory safety. This is not a price war; this is about people’s lives. Walmart has dragged Gap and a number of other brands down the wrong track. We now urge the Walmart/Gap initiative to think again and raise its standard to those of the Accord out of respect for Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi garment workers.[5]

Walmart and the other retailers have an opportunity to show their customers and the world that they are more than parasitic institutions feeding off the labours of poor Bangladeshi workers. They can show the world they care about workers and workplace safety.  It is time for these companies to realize that the world has changed and will no longer sit passively by while workers’ lives are put at risk in the name of profit. President Obama even recently removed some Bangladesh trade privileges with the U.S. in protest of the unsafe working conditions[6].

The world is listening now and it's time for these companies to see that safety is the new fashion. It is in their own self-interest to change with the times, before the world leaves them behind.

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