Maine has a long and proud heritage of pragmatism and problem solving. Our state is short on tolerance for allowing obstacles to stand in the way of getting things done and long on producing results. We both consider ourselves immensely fortunate to be custodians of that tradition.
In May, North American garment retailers and brands approached us, requesting that we facilitate discussions to address the urgent humanitarian issue of worker safety in the garment industry of Bangladesh. In the spirit of seeking solutions, we accepted, operating under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., with which we are both involved.
Mainers are fair-minded and compassionate people. So when we witnessed the terrible fire last November at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh and the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza in April, our hearts went out to the thousands of victims and their families. We knew then that the status quo in Bangladesh is unacceptable, and that clothing manufacturers and consumers worldwide — regardless of where they live — had a shared responsibility to help find solutions.
The North American companies we worked with made it clear from the outset that they could not sign an accord that could produce varying results because of differences in U.S. and European laws. It was clear, then, that forging a similar agreement in North America, aimed at protecting Bangladeshi workers and complementing The European Accord, was essential. The alternative — a continuation of separate programs by individual companies — was unacceptable.
As Mainers, we also understand the value of a job. The garment industry in Bangladesh is a $20 billion-a-year business that provides jobs for 3.5 million workers and accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s global exports. Fully 2.8 million of the people employed in this sector — 80 percent — are women. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, many of these women are their families’ primary breadwinners. It is critical that they can continue to work, but in doing so, they must not be forced to put their lives at risk.
For these reasons, we agreed to help North American retailers and brands create an agreement to improve the safety of these workers. The process was defined by a shared sense of purpose, an accelerated timetable and a commitment to gather perspectives from a wide variety of stakeholders with experience and expertise in Bangladeshi worker safety — including the International Labor Organization, the U.S. and Bangladeshi governments, safety experts, and key nongovernmental organizations focused on workers’ rights. Other labor organizations were invited to participate, but they declined.
At the conclusion of our meetings, The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was born. With broad participation from 17 of the leading garment retailers and brands in North America, the Alliance will implement The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative.
While no single response can solve the extremely complex problems facing Bangladeshi garment factories, the initiative promotes collaboration among all stakeholders: the Bangladeshi government, the U.S. and other foreign governments, retailers and brands, factory owners, workers, buyers in North America and Europe, members of civil society, organized labor and The European Accord. But most important, it offers transparent and measurable remedies to enhance the safety of the Bangladeshi workplace.
Alliance members have made a five-year commitment, established a base of $42 million for a Worker Safety Fund, and provided a minimum of $100 million in access to low-cost capital to fund factory improvements.
Because we all urgently seek to avoid a recurrence of tragic events in Bangladesh factories, the Alliance has committed to inspecting all of the factories in which its members do business and to training all of the workers in their factories in Bangladesh within one year to follow uniform, established safety standards.
Workers will also be empowered to anonymously report dangerous conditions without fear of reprisals and to contribute to remediation plans that are crafted in the wake of detailed inspections. And the agreement calls for a minimum of 10 percent of the Worker Safety Fund to be dedicated to helping workers displaced by closures resulting from necessary factory renovations.
The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety’s agreement and action plan advance the global effort to protect Bangladeshi garment workers through swift, specific, and measurable steps. The people of Bangladesh — like people everywhere — deserve jobs and a safe place to work. As responsible global citizens, the members of the Alliance are committed to making that happen.
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell is co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe is a BPC Senior Fellow.