Several major retailers have signed a legally binding initiative to improve conditions for the thousands of workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The death of more than 1,100 people after an eight-story building collapsed in Dhaka in April has put the pressure on manufacturers. Companies who have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh have agreed to undergo safety inspections at their factories, to have reports of these made public and to perform necessary repairs and renovations as needed.
However, Walmart, Target, Gap and a number of other major retailers have yet to sign. Indeed, of the nearly 40 companies who have, only two, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, are from the U.S.
Walmart points out that it and “a number of other retailers” are “not in a position to sign” the accord at this moment. In a statement on its website, Target says that it supports another group, the North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group, that has similar goals. Gap said it was “six sentences away” from committing and then didn’t. The reason for these companies’ refusal reveals what they think of protecting the rights and well-being of workers in general: Walmart and other retailers did not sign because they were “worried that the agreement would give labor groups and others the ability to sue them in U.S. courts,” says the Washington Post.
Religious Groups and Investors Put Pressure on Retailers to Sign Accord
A coalition of more than 100 religious groups and others – including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association and the AFL-CIO — signed a letter on Thursday urging Walmart and other mega-retailers to do so. Another group that controls investment and pension funds overseeing $1.35 trillion in assets also sent a letter to the retailers urging them to sign as they expect that companies in their portfolios will “ensure the integrity of their supply chains.” Rev. Seamus P. Finn, who represents shareholders from the Catholic organization Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, said that, if companies did not sign the accord, they would not divest their holdings but seek to exert pressure via, for instance, shareholder resolutions.
The need for the accord — for a way for retailers to step up and take responsibility for the conditions of those who make the products they profit on — was underscored by the deaths of two workers in a shoe factory in Cambodia on Thursday. The factory produces shoes for companies including Japan-based ASICs. Cambodia is one of a number of Asian countries (including Vietnam and Indonesia) that manufacturers have been in a rush to turn to as potential suppliers. Cambodia actually has “strong laws on safety and other issues” that were drafted in consultation with international advisers. But, as the New York Times says, enforcement is weak.
That is, while it is a step forward that some retailers have signed the accord and are pledging to protect workers, doing so is far from a guarantee for their safety. Earlier this week, the Bangladeshi government said it would allow its 4 million garment workers to form trade unions without needing the permission of factory owners; what will develop from this remains to be seen.
What If the Companies Don’t Respond? What Can We Still Do?
Philip Jennings, the general secretary of the United Nations Global Union, which helped draft the accord’s proposals, has also called on Target and the other companies who refused to sign to “show they care about the Bangladesh supplier workforce” or risk putting their “corporate reputations on the line.”
Call me cynical, but I am not sure how much the latter worries the likes of Walmart. Such mega-companies know full well that there will always be consumers who shrug at human rights issues and keep buying cheap clothes (in part because that may be all they can afford).
But there is one small step we can do, to publicize that it doesn’t have to be that way. There are options to buying something besides “quick-fix fashion” in big chain stores: small, independent companies and designers; online companies who have made providing ethical wares central to their existence; vintage and second-hand clothing. As 18-year-old Rosalind Jana writes in the Guardian:
… although my generation may have been bred on quick-fix fashion, we also have a great capacity to question it. Many are aware of what happened in Dhaka, but a combination of perceived powerlessness to change things and a desire for instant, cheap gratification keeps them shopping. Some don’t care at all. But it’s so important that the ones who do start being vocal about it. We’re the consumers of both today and tomorrow, with decades of buying ahead.
Indeed, the buying power of teenagers alone is said to be a couple billion dollars. Perhaps what needs to be done is to remind younger generations that clothes didn’t always “have” to be bought; that there was once no such thing as shopping. People made their own clothes and wore, mended and altered them as long as they could.
People indeed still make our clothes. It is just that they live and work far, far away. For this reason, we need even more to remember their hard work and their right to a safe place to work, to decent hours and a fair wage — just the things we would want for ourselves.
Photo via Thinkstock