Even After One of Worst Worker Atrocities in Human History, Gap & Walmart Won't Get Serious About Preventing Another

Should the government of Bangladesh or the companies that sell products manufactured in the country be held responsible for working conditions?

Photo Credit: Fight for Philly

On Saturday, June 29, Center City Philadelphia hummed with activity as shoppers and gawkers surged across the sidewalks, enjoying the first sunny day all week. But outside of the Gap outlet on Walnut Street, the crowds pause to look at the dozen people lying on the sidewalk. Again and again people came up to those standing at the fringes of the recumbent group: “What’re they doing?”

Amy Offner was quick to engage passersby. She explained the garment industry’s troubled history in Bangladesh, culminating in the April 24 collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. Almost 1,130 people were killed, most of them garment workers who were forced to return to work in the obviously structurally compromised building. Following the disaster, which was the deadliest in the history of the global garment industry, many European and a few American companies signed the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” (U.S. signatories include Sean John, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the company that runs Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.) The agreement is legally binding and would require independent inspection of all factories by an investigator “with fire and building safety expertise…who is independent of and not concurrently employed by companies, trade unions or factories.” When problems are found the companies must fix them and cover lost wages for the duration of the renovations.

But many prominent American companies, including Walmart and Gap, refused to sign. Hence the corpse-like bodies strewn on the sidewalk covered in signs reading “GAP: Death Traps” and “Workers Shouldn’t Die for Fashion.”

“People were really curious, and most people were surprised Gap even uses sweatshop labor,” says Offner. “They assumed sweatshops had been wiped out a hundred years ago, or at least by the actions in the 1990s. They were shocked to find out Gap uses sweatshops and is refusing to seriously try and improve the industry.”

The Philadelphia action coincided with similar protests in 35 other cities, representing a further escalation the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) campaign against Gap. The protests came two days after the Obama administration announced it would be severing Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. The move ends duty free privileges that were extended to some Bangladeshi products. It is explicitly meant to be a punishment for Rana Plaza and other recent industrial accidents. Although the dollar value of the sanction is only estimated to be $40 million annually and does not affect the garment industry, some Philly activists used the administration’s decision as a rallying cry, urging passersby to “support Obama’s executive order.”

“This is one of the stronger actions our government has taken—it sends a very strong message to the government of Bangladesh that our country takes seriously the egregious labor rights violations that have been going on,” says Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, which has been pushing such a punitive policy since at least 2007.What is happening is a struggle to really figure out issues around global governance. The binding accord is really significant because it’s the first time we’ve seen corporations do something [besides] the traditional voluntary route. It will complement the political message coming from the U.S., because they are not just suspending GSP but engaging the Bangladeshi government so it can [improve] and get those benefits returned.”

The White house has stated that there isn’t a timetable regarding the possible reinstatement of trade privileges. The AFL-CIO expected the Obama administration to release a road map of necessary reforms when it announced the suspension of benefits last Thursday, but so far no such document has been forthcoming. The AFL-CIO suggestions include assurances that the right to collectively bargain be respected. Currently there are very few formal worker organizations in the Bangladeshi garment sector and labor organizing is often met with brutal force. (In May a new law was passed allowing garment workers to unionize without the permission of factory owners.)

“You really have to pressure the corporations themselves because they are the ones that wield the real power here,” says Erik Loomis, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island.“Corporations, Walmart and the Gap especially, are pushing their sub-contractors for as low a wage as possible and by subcontracting they shift responsibility away from themselves. lf you could put pressure on corporations to ensure that factory in Bangladesh had basic workplace safety standards the problems would be taken care of. So probably the fire and building safety accord [will be more significant than the sanctions of the Obama administration].”

The USAS actions focused on both the building safety accord and the need for the right to organize a union. But when the Philly activists filed into the store, chanting and singing, security guards immediately pounced and attempted to escort them out. When a student leader tried to encourage the managers to tell their superiors about the action, they were handed a prepared statement, “To Our Customers.”

“We agree with protesters that conditions in Bangladesh need to improve so that these tragedies are a thing of the past. But we don’t always agree on the specifics of how to do this,” the statement reads. "These groups have targeted us because, as a known leader in social responsibility, they know that we can help lead the way. … we are building on our own efforts by joining with other North American retailers. Together, we’re developing a plan for lasting change for workers in Bangladesh.”

That wasn’t the company’s line as of two years ago. During an industry conference on safety in the Bangladeshi garment industry in 2011, both Gap and Walmart declined to sign a contractually enforceable policy that would have forced them to pay factory owners enough to allow them to afford safety improvements. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments,” a Walmart spokesperson said at the time.

But since the Rana Plaza calamity, pressure has increased considerably. A few days before the USAS rallies, the recalcitrant companies’ plan became clearer. The Wall Street Journal reports that Gap, Walmart, and other companies that have not signed the accord plan to put together a $50 million fund to improve safety conditions in the over 5,000 Bangladeshi garment factories. According to a late 2012 Bloomberg News exclusive, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated it would cost $3 billion over five years to ensure that the nation’s factories include such basics as fire exits, emergency lighting and safety training programs. “$3 billion figure, or $600 million per year, represents about 3 percent of the $19 billion the Bangladesh Manufacturers & Exporters Association says Western companies spend annually on manufacturing in Bangladesh,” the article notes.

As the protest ended, Offner spoke with a passerby who said, indignantly, “They’re still using sweatshops, are you serious?” If the $50 million safety fund is any indication, Gap and its other counterparts are very serious about not only continuing to use sweatshops, but doing so entirely under their own terms.

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.

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