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Critics Blast US Retailers' Corporate-Dominated Factory Safety "Sham"

Labor Rights Groups: 'This confirms what we have long predicted: that Wal-Mart, Gap and companies like them do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep.'

Lauren McCauley

In what is being blasted as a "sham" and an "expensive PR stunt" by workers' rights groups, 17 North American retailers—including the Gap and Wal-Mart—launched a Bangladesh worker safety plan Wednesday as a means of sidestepping a legally binding international agreement.

The plan, called the "Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety" was devised as an alternative to the Bangladesh Safety Accord—a union-led and legally binding agreement signed by over 70 international brands and retailers.

“Gap and Wal-Mart’s safety plan is a sham which won’t make factories safe and only serves to undermine the Bangladesh Safety Accord," said Murray Worthy, sweatshops campaigner at the human rights watchdog group War on Want.

Both agreements were spurred by the enormous international outcry following the Rana Plaza disaster in April when over 1,100 workers were killed in the collapse of a substandard Bangladesh factory. Previous to the collapse, a series of devastating garment factory fires highlighted the dangerous working conditions in the country and the enormous risk posed to millions of workers paid as little as $40 a month.

“This is just more of the same corporate-dominated voluntary measures that were so clearly proven to have failed in the Rana Plaza disaster," Worthy continued. "Gap, Wal-Mart and the other brands behind the Alliance must scrap this expensive PR stunt and join the rest of the clothing industry in signing the comprehensive, legally binding and life-saving Bangladesh Safety Accord.”

Other signers of the Alliance include Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, Sears, L.L. Bean and J.C.Penney.

The deal alleges to inspect all factories used by the signatories within a year and establish a common set of safety standards. Further, the retailers will reportedly pay up to $1m a year each to support mandatory training for factory staff and managers and to support "worker participation committees" in every factory to deal with complaints about working conditions, the Guardian reports.

However, according to a response by a half-dozen labor rights groups reported by IPS, "companies that decide to withdraw from the alliance are only penalized by being forced to pay their share of administrative costs. For large companies, this would work out to around five million dollars – while Wal-Mart alone brings in more than 400 billion dollars annually."

“Companies that sign onto the alliance but fail to meet a commitment face no adverse consequences beyond expulsion from the scheme. Instead, workers will continue to pay,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told IPS.

Further, Trumka notes that the "so-called" Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was developed without consulting with workers or union representatives and other critics point out that the "worker participation committees" will likely undermine workers' rights to join trade unions and organize freely.

“This confirms what labor rights advocates have long predicted: that Wal-Mart, Gap and companies like them simply do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep," said the labor rights coalition. "What they want is to be able to make promises now, at a time of major public and media scrutiny, that they can walk away from whenever it suits them, at a token cost."

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