U.S. Retailers Vow To Upgrade Bangladesh's Safety Standards

A group of 20 companies, meeting in Chicago Tuesday, announced steps to implement a safety plan for factories in Bangladesh. The companies, including Wal-Mart, Costco and Gap, formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which promises to have fire and building safety standards in place by mid-September.

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Some of America's biggest retailers announced new steps yesterday aimed at improving safety standards in Bangladesh's troubled garment industry. Wal-Mart and the Gap were among the companies that formed a group called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety after the deadliest accident ever in the garment industry.

In April, more than 1,100 garment workers died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh. The Alliance will oversee inspections of plants where clothing is made and help arrange loans for factory upgrades. But labor activists say the effort falls far short of what's needed.

NPR's Jim's Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: About 25 percent of the clothing that's manufactured in Bangladesh's garment sector is eventually bought by American retailers. So the horrific accidents that have occurred over the past year have put huge pressure on U.S. retailers to address the safety problems plaguing Bangladesh factories.

ELLEN TAUSCHER: There are huge infrastructure challenges in Bangladesh. And, you know, it's important that we realize that no one wants to have the kinds of tragedies that you've seen happen recently, happen.

ZARROLI: That's former California congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, who was named yesterday as the chair of the Alliance's board. The Alliance says that within a year, it plans to inspect all 500 of the factories where U.S. retailers get clothing made. And within a month, they hope to have spelled out the inspection protocol and drawn up fire and safety standards for factories.

TAUSCHER: Factories, in and of themselves, can never be made perfectly safe. But it is important that these people - the people of Bangladesh that go to work in these garment factories - can be made as safe as possible.

ZARROLI: The Alliance also said yesterday that three new retailers, including Costco, had become part of the group. They join some of the biggest names in American retailing, including Wal-Mart and Target.

But the effort faces some skepticism. The retailers have agreed to inspect the factories they use, but they aren't committing to pay for fixing any safety violations they find. In contrast, most big European retailers have signed a separate accord that commits them to pay for repairs directly.

Scott Nova is executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which helped write the European accord. He says the U.S. effort doesn't go far enough.

SCOTT NOVA: So there's no accountability to the public, no accountability to worker representatives, no accountability to any outside party. There's no binding enforceable commitment from these brands and retailers to change the way they do business in Bangladesh to put an end to this problem.

ZARROLI: Nova also notes that the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is controlled by U.S. retailers, and they appoint its board members and staff.

NOVA: They're appointed by the companies. They can be removed by the companies. They serve at the pleasure of the companies. This is not genuine independence.

ZARROLI: Nova says the Alliance essentially amounts to retailers and factory owners regulating themselves, and he says that's no different from the way they operate already.

But Ellen Tauscher insists that the Alliance plans to establish tough rules and to force retailers that don't play by them into binding arbitration.

TAUSCHER: I look forward to going to Bangladesh soon, so I can see firsthand the kind of progress that the Alliance is making, and meeting government and industry officials, because we have to move rapidly to bring these improvements for the workers in the garment factories.

ZARROLI: Over the next year, a lot of people will be watching to see if that effort succeeds.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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