Seven months after the Rana factory collapse forced the garment industry into action over worker safety in Bangladesh, some companies and organizations are claiming that substantial progress has now been made.
Many within the garment industry assert that proof of progress came this week, in the form of a tentative agreement between the two leading groups of retailers and the Bangladeshi government’s National Tripartite Action Plan. The two retailer groups, the European-dominated Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh, and the predominantly-U.S. Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and the government representatives decided on common standards for factory inspections that could help ensure efficiency and consistency of on-site worker safety audits.
Just days after this announcement, the National Retail Federation (NRF) praised the efforts of the U.S.-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, asserting that significant improvements have already been made towards worker safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. In particular, they commended Walmart’s recent online publication of the results of 75 inspections carried out on factories that it uses.
It’s true that the accord and Walmart’s disclosure represent movement. However, this is only part of the story. Many experts are skeptical about the extent of the progress.
The NRF’s proclamation that significant progress has been made has been called into question by members of the EU-dominated Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which is in the EU group, has disputed the effectiveness of Walmart’s inspections, which the NRF has used as its primary example of progress. Mr. Nova stated that the inspection reports “don’t really point out specific or actual hazards” and “in terms of public disclosure, it’s pretty useless”.
And, despite reaching the provisional agreement earlier this week, there are major disputes between the EU-led retailer group and its U.S. counterpart. Leaders from the European group have expressed concern that U.S. retailers may benefit from their efforts without taking on any of the costs of action themselves. This concern is drawn from the fact that while members of the EU group have agreed to binding commitments to help pay for building upgrades and safety measures, U.S. corporations have not done so, instead pledging low interest loans. This has led to a rift between the two major groups and prompted external skepticism on the commitment of U.S. retailers to achieve long-term improvements.
Opinion on the benefits of recent developments is split. However, the good news is that the issue of worker safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry is continuing to receive sustained attention. Time will tell if this scrutiny can result in tangible progress for those working in dangerous conditions.