The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (“Alliance”) is giving passing grades to Bangladeshi factories in spite of significant deficiencies in terms of compliance, according to a new report published on Monday. The Alliance, an organization backed by global retailers, has pushed back deadlines to implement fire exits, alarms and structural renovations more than three years after the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013 that claimed the lives of 1,137 garment workers and seriously injured many more.
London-based publication, the Guardian, noted that its preview of the first independent systematic survey of the Bangladeshi garment factories – entitled, Dangerous Delays on Worker Safety, and compiled by the International Labour Rights Forum, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Maquila Solidarity Network – revealed that 62 percent of Bangladeshi garments factories still lack viable fire exits and properly functioning fire alarm systems, and 47 percent have major, uncorrected structural problems.
Moreover, the authors of the independent survey conclude that the factories that provide clothes to some of the biggest names in retail – including Zara, H&M, and Topshop, among many others – have so far failed to implement key renovations by their own mandated deadlines. Once firm deadlines for repairs and improvements set for 2014 and 2015 were scrapped to be replaced with a 2018 deadline that coincides with the end of the Alliance arrangement.
The Alliance disputed the report’s findings, saying it relied on inaccurate and outdated information. James Moriarty, country director for the Alliance, said he is “totally confident” that the factories will meet retailers’ standards by 2018, when the agreement ends.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, retailers formed two groups to address safety issues in Bangladesh. The first one was Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh ("Accord"), which is led by H&M and backed by Adidas, Benetton, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and others. The other major initiative, the Alliance, is backed by retailers such as Gap, Target and Walmart.
In March, the Alliance released a study of its own, boasting that voluntary changes from global retailers have transformed Bangladesh’s garment industry for the better. “The ready-to-wear industry will be forever changed by the developments in Bangladesh,” reads the Alliance report. It cited a recent wave of factory inspections, ongoing efforts to improve conditions at unsafe factories and the launch of an initiative that provides low-cost loans to factories in order to reduce the cost of remediation. "Our goal is to create a credit facility of $20 million to $35 million via five local banks," the Alliance said in a progress report released in March. "Although this facility is still in the start-up phase, it represents an important breakthrough in providing access to affordable financing."
Critics have been skeptical, though. In fact, critics took issue with the report, saying it lacked transparency and was noticeably short on specifics. “This is a public relations exercise,” says Brian Finnegan, global worker rights coordinator at the AFL-CIO. “Who’s verifying the contents of these reports other than the companies?”
Unlike the Alliance, the Accord – which the AFL-CIO supports – involves participation from labor unions, including workers’ groups in Bangladesh. Finnegan acknowledges factories are under enhanced scrutiny since the two groups formed, but says inspections and low-cost loans can only go so far. He says two main issues remain unresolved: Workers need stronger protections to be able to freely organize and engage in collective bargaining, and apparel buyers like Walmart need to be willing to pay their suppliers more. “Buyers have to pay a wage-rich price,” Finnegan says. “The business model is based on paying as low a price as possible.”