US retailers and unions mull over Bangladesh safety solutions

RetailME Bureau

At a recent US Senate foreign relations committee hearing on labour issues in Bangladesh, attorneys representing retail trade associations and national trade unions centre called for different solutions to improve overseas working conditions in the aftermath of the Bangladesh garment factory collapse in April that killed 1,100 workers and injured another 1,500.

John Lubbe, an international employment law expert testifying on behalf of the National Retail Federation (NRF) and other trade associations, called for the Bangladesh government to fix corruption and building codes, and said major retailers need flexible solutions to quickly fix problems in their supply chain.

“Labour problems in Bangladesh are complex, and there is no simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that will resolve the current systemic issues. A solution must address eradicating corruption, improving the quality of building construction, the location of factories, the issuing of building use permits, the enforcement of building and safety codes and the ability of garment workers to raise concerns free of retaliation,” said Lubbe.

Lubbe also urged flexibility for businesses to allow companies the ability to quickly deal with issues within their own supply chains, adding that retailers such as Gap and Walmart, which sell garments made in Bangladesh, have already taken several steps to improve working conditions and to work toward a long-term solution.

Lubbe criticised a proposed fire- and building-safety accord that many European companies have already signed. “US retailers cannot in good conscience sign the accord because the current language presents potentially unlimited legal liability given its vague and ambiguous terms,” he testified.

Taking a different view was union trade specialist and lawyer Celeste Drake, testifying on behalf of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO). Drake said the government, factory owners, and international brands need to commit to enforceable standards for workplace safety and worker rights.

“The global fashion industry pays rates that, in effect, cause the very problems that plague Bangladesh’s factories and their workers. Some factories may wish to do the right thing, but feel they cannot afford to do so and still remain competitive. International brands, especially, are especially because they have the financial leverage to incentivise meaningful change,” she said.

Drake urged US companies to sign the binding safety accord, adding that American brands PVH Corp. (parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), Sean John Clothing Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. have already signed it.