On the morning of April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories, collapsed. When the search and recovery operation concluded on May 13, the final death toll stood at 1,129 workers, making it one of the worst industrial workplace disasters in history.
Media coverage of this event added fuel to a longstanding campaign by local and international unions and NGOs to address what was, well before this latest tragedy, a crisis in building and fire safety in Bangladesh.
As a result of this publicity and activist pressure, over 70 companies, mostly European apparel brands and retailers, have signed a factory safety agreement called the Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh (pdf). These include H&M (largest global buyer from Bangladesh), Carrefour and Tesco (the second and third-largest retailers in the world), and Inditex (world’s largest fashion retailer and owner of the Zara brand). The Accord also has the support of two global union federations, several leading labor rights groups, and the International Labour Organization.
Notably absent from these signatories, however, are the American buyers sourcing apparel from Bangladesh. Although a few U.S. companies signed on —specifically, Philips Van Heusen, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Sean John Apparel—most of the country’s leading retailers have not. Instead, earlier this month they announced an alternative program, the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative (pdf).
Why did America’s largest retailers, including Wal-Mart, Gap, J.C. Penney, and Macy’s, decline to join a program that enjoys broad support and buy-in from multiple stakeholders, opting instead to propose their own alternative initiative? I argue that the answer becomes clear if we look more closely at the content of each plan.