Walmart and Gap Inc. have continued to resist calls for them to sign a global accord aimed at bringing safer conditions to garment factories in Bangladesh, but instead announced this week that they will be participating in a new working group aimed at forging their own safety plan.
The two retailers have for months faced pressure from labor unions and worker rights groups after a string of deadly fires killed hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh, but the cries for safety standards intensified in the aftermath of the worst factory disaster in the history of the industry last month. Then, more than 1,200 died when an eight story building collapsed in the capital city Dhaka.
Soon after that tragedy, several of the world's largest clothing retailers dropped their prior resistance and agreed to sign a global accord that promises binding, verifiable safety standards for Bangladesh factories. Walmart and Gap have been the most prominent hold outs.
Both companies had been touting their own safety programs since last fall, but they have been criticized by worker rights groups who said the plans could not be enforced or monitored. But now, the two giants say they will be joining with a Washington-based think tank to develop and implement a new safety program, an effort that will be overseen by former U.S. Senators George J. Mitchell and Olympia Snowe.
"At Walmart, we've taken a number of actions that meet or exceed other factory safety proposals," said Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman. "We also believe there is a need to partner with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry. Taking part in the development of this broader safety plan with other brands, retailers and the Bipartisan Policy Center, building upon our previously announced commitments, is part of that work."
A spokesperson for Gap Inc. said the company is "hopeful that… these discussions will result in a plan for long-lasting change for the garment industry in Bangladesh."
"We believe the American alliance can be a powerful path forward to achieve lasting change in Bangladesh, and will build upon the work that is already underway," the spokesperson said.
Scott Nova, who runs the Worker Rights Consortium, said he believes both Wal-Mart and Gap are looking to avoid getting involved in any safety program that would enable outside groups to verify that safety improvements are actually being made.
"This is the latest, and probably most sophisticated, in a series of industry public relations gambits designed to deflect attention from the real issue: the refusal of these companies to make a binding commitment to clean up their factories in Bangladesh," Nova said. "This shows the pressure these corporations are under and their recognition that the failed inspection schemes they have been touting no longer have any public credibility. Unfortunately, their goal has not changed: they are still looking for political cover so they can preserve the very lucrative status quo."