Rana Plaza, the Bangladesh factory that collapsed three weeks ago, killed more than 1,100 workers, many of them young women. This tragedy adds to the more than 1,500 Bangladeshi workers killed in preventable fires and building collapses since 2005. Documents found at the factory show that the workers produced for big names in global retail , revealing the link between poor workers in Bangladesh and major retail brands. Obviously, the government must improve local laws and their enforcement to stop these tragedies, but brands also must take responsibility for their supply chains. They must be held accountable to the tragedy that happened in their supply chain.
Last year, local Bangladeshi and international unions and workers’ rights groups negotiated an agreement to stop these deaths and help Bangladesh’s garment workers claim their rights. Two brands signed the agreement; but U.S. brands, including Walmart, JCPenney, the GAP, the Children’s Place and other North America brands have not.
The binding and legally enforceable agreement ensures that owners repair factories or lose access to markets and that international brands pay their share. Many clothing companies chose to produce in Bangladesh and have made high profits based the world’s lowest wages and most dangerous conditions in this thoroughly globalized industry. The agreement strengthens workers’ right to organize and defend their own rights—including the right to refuse to enter or remain in an unsafe workplace.
While two major brands signed the agreement, most of the industry refused. The Rana Plaza factory collapse, which has killed more than 1,100 workers, makes it clear that a binding and enforceable agreement is needed to save lives and improve conditions in this global supply chain. Supported by the global unions of manufacturing and retail workers, IndustriALL and UNI , local unions and workers’ rights groups and international allies have pressed forward with the negotiations.
This week, 18 companies have signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety , including some of the largest buyers of clothing from Bangladesh. However, only one of these companies is a U.S. company, PVH Corp., the owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands. Other signatories include major European brands with stores in the United States: Benetton, H&M and Zara. U.S. brands need to make the same commitment: Walmart, JCPenney, the GAP, the Children’s Place and other North America brands must sign.
As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted:
We too have had our horrendous workplace tragedies, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Part of the solution then was surely improving and enforcing laws. But unions and employers also played a role. We had a system of supply chain negotiation and binding, enforceable agreements that made the jobs safe and brought the workers out of poverty. U.S. brands and their suppliers negotiated with workers and their unions and went a long way toward eliminating sweatshops in the U.S. Then employers chose to produce in countries with little enforcement of laws and few workers organized in workplaces. It’s time for U.S. brands to be part of today’s solution to sweatshops in global supply chains.
Two weeks ago, workers sent the agreement with a deadline for signing the accord—May 15 at 6 p.m. EDT.
Take action now and let the GAP and other companies know how important it is that they sign the agreement before the deadline: deliver letters to local Gap store managers today using the materials on the Take Action page .
Brian Finnegan is the global worker rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO's International Department.