CONTRIBUTORS

George Mitchell, Olympia Snowe complicit in corporate sham on Bangladesh worker safety

Rehena, a garment worker rescued from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, waits for a prosthesis operation at the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (NITOR) in Dhaka September 22, 2013.
ANDREW BIRAJ | REUTERS
Rehena, a garment worker rescued from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, waits for a prosthesis operation at the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (NITOR) in Dhaka September 22, 2013.
Posted Nov. 04, 2013, at 3:29 p.m.

Rabeya was working in Rana Plaza the day it collapsed. She has two sons and two daughters — and works because her husband’s income is not sufficient to support the family. “I did not want to go to work. But we were threatened by the owner that we would not get our salary if we didn’t show up,” she said.

She was crushed by a part of ceiling that fell on her. Rabeya is facing a long recovery and an insecure future. Her face and nose have been crushed, both legs and chest bones broken.

On April 24, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building killed at least 1,133 workers and injured hundreds more, becoming the deadliest accident in the history of the global apparel industry. In fact, three of the four deadliest incidents in the sector’s history have taken place in the last year.

In the months and years leading up to these accidents, all three buildings had been subject to multiple corporate-led audits, some just weeks before the disaster, which failed to uncover and address the glaring safety issues that led to such massive death tolls.

And on Oct. 8, a fire broke out at the Aswad Composite Mills factory with hundreds of workers inside. At least 10 people were killed and 50 were injured, some critically. Aswad is one of 23 factories owned by the Palmal Group, which Wal-Mart and Gap have praised as a top supplier.

The world is watching, and people are demanding change. We now must choose between more of the same policies that put workers’ lives at risk, or real change to ensure safe workplaces in the garment industry.

Unfortunately, former Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell recently gave cover to a group of U.S. retailers who are OK with the status quo. Snowe and Mitchell lent their names to a newly formed “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.” The Alliance touted by Mitchell and Snowe is merely a reiteration of these same failed programs such as corporate-led audits, and will not prevent inevitable future deaths.

For years, companies such as Gap and Wal-Mart have said that they are doing everything possible to make their factories safe, but this is the exact opposite of the truth. Instead, Gap and Wal-Mart constantly pressure their suppliers to produce as cheaply as possible and with minimal turnaround time. This pressure led factory managers to force workers back into Rana Plaza even after it had been shut down by police, and supervisors to tell workers not to leave their workstations after the fire alarm rang at Tazreen Fashions. Until the brands change their sourcing strategies, these tragedies will continue.

Worker rights organizations have urged Gap and Wal-Mart to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement in which companies are obligated to keep the promises they have made to workers and accept financial responsibility for ensuring that their factories are made safe. But Gap and Wal-Mart refuse, pursuing their own voluntary initiatives that are a dressed-up version of their failed schemes, allowing deaths to continue.

Snowe and Mitchell refuse to acknowledge the key differences between the two programs, one of which will be a genuine vehicle for improvements and the other a corporate sham. Under the company-led “Alliance,” brands and retailers are not obligated to pay a cent toward the renovation and repair of their factories. In contrast, Accord signatories are required to ensure that all necessary funds are available to cover the cost of renovations to make their factories safe. The entire Gap/Wal-Mart scheme is voluntary, meaning that companies can renege on their commitments when they conflict with their bottom line.

We are ashamed that Snowe and Mitchell are endorsing this program. Although the former senators describe the Bipartisan Policy Center as an independent think tank, it actually receives funding directly from Wal-Mart and its lobbyists.

Snowe and Mitchell have also claimed that there are legal issues that prevent American companies from signing on — an argument that has been refuted by legal experts and did not stop multiple U.S. retailers, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters, from signing on.

Snowe and Mitchell describe the collapse of Rana Plaza as a wake-up call. But the status quo has been dismal for a long time and industry-led programs do nothing to change that.

As more companies sign onto the Accord, the only program that has been endorsed by Bangladesh worker representatives, Gap and Wal-Mart fall further behind. We hope that Mitchell and Snowe will stop using their reputations to endorse this corporate sham. Bangladeshi workers cannot wait.

Kalpona Akter of Bangladesh is executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and a former child garment worker. Sarah Bigney of Hallowell is director of field and member engagement with the Maine AFL-CIO, a state federation of more than 160 local unions and 35,000 members and retirees across Maine.

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