Can anything good possibly come out of the more than 1,100 deaths of young workers in the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh? It's hard to admit this, but the answer is yes. If international outrage finally forces apparel companies to take the steps necessary to end this cycle of factory disasters, we might prevent further horrifying deaths in a country that is the second and third largest exporter of garments to Canada and the United States respectively.
This week Loblaw Cos. Ltd, whose Joe Fresh label was found in the rubble of the collapsed building, announced it will be joining over a dozen major European retailers and brands and one U.S. company in signing a groundbreaking accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh.
Loblaw's announcement was welcome and precedent-setting news. But now the question is, where are the other North American retailers and brands?
Wal-Mart Canada is still denying that any "authorized production" for the company was done in the Rana Plaza building at the time of its collapse. Yesterday, prodded by a New York Times article, Wal-Mart finally admitted that clothes were made at Rana Plaza in 2012. Was the building more safe then?
Gap, which has been linked to earlier factory disasters in Bangladesh, claims it would sign the accord – with one small change: remove the binding arbitration clause so that the company cannot be held accountable if it fails to deliver on its commitments. That clause is what distinguishes this accord from the type of voluntary, unenforceable codes of conduct that have failed Bangladeshi workers in the past.
The alternative to this program is to cling to the status quo – a haphazard program of secretive, company-controlled factory audits that have failed repeatedly to detect or fix the endemic building and fire safety hazards that plague the Bangladesh garment industry. Since the collapse of the Spectrum garment factory in 2005, more than 1,700 garment workers have died unnecessarily in factory fires and building collapses. Non-binding codes of conduct have done nothing to prevent this escalating body count.
This accord represents a different approach to worker safety, one in which workers themselves are encouraged to play an informed and active role. Under the accord, workers and management will be trained on building and fire safety, and workers will have the right to file complaints and to refuse unsafe work. If workers in the Rana Plaza building could have refused to re-enter a building that was already showing structural cracks, they would be alive today.
The accord also provides for independent factory inspections, public disclosure of the results, mandatory building renovations to eliminate hazards, and union access to factories to educate workers on their rights.
The accord is supported by all the major trade union and labour rights organizations both within Bangladesh and internationally. It has been endorsed by the International Labour Organization, which will play a role in its implementation. It represents a collective approach to a collective problem. Now that the biggest buyers from Bangladesh and the major labour rights organizations are ready to move ahead on this program, it's time for the other buyers stop stalling.
Among North American retailers and brands, Loblaw and PVH Corp (owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein labels) have thankfully stepped up to the plate. Will their leadership inspire other North American retailers and brands to sign the accord before this week's deadline passes?
Lynda Yanz is the Executive Director of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network.