around the worldA proposal unveiled this week by Walmart and the Gap aimed at improving safety for garment factory workers in Bangladesh who make the goods sold by the retailers has been met with jeers by labor and safety activists, who say the plan is badly flawed and puts profits above safety.

Since the April 24th Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1100 people – the worst of many recent workplace incidents in Bangladesh, retailers have been criticized for ignoring the needs of the people toiling for low wages and in unsafe conditions at the other end of the global supply chain.

The Obama Administration suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh last month in order to pressure that country’s government to remedy the situation.

"Unenforceable" version

“The retail giants announced today yet another toothless voluntary private regulation scheme for the garment industry in Bangladesh.” According to the AFL-CIO. “Gap and Walmart have come together with another 15 corporations to offer a watered-down and unenforceable version of the accord for those companies that would prefer not to make a serious commitment to workers’ rights.”

Walmart’s Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative includes inspections, the funding of safety upgrades, and giving employees access to a complaint hotline.

Safety activists say the estimated cost of infrastructure repairs is far above the amount provided for in the Initiative, and that the plan does not force companies to actually make the repairs they’re given money for.

Furthermore, inspections are to be carried out by the businesses themselves and safety complaints made to anonymous phone lines will not be likely to bring about hazard abatement since there is no means of ensuring that meaningful action is taken on the complaints, say the plan’s detractors.

“Rather than sign the binding Accord, Walmart and Gap are pushing a weak and worthless plan that avoids enforceable commitments,” said the AFL-CIO in a statement.

Alternate accord is legally binding

Unlike Walmart, the Gap and the other companies who are signatories to the Initiative, a handful of U.S. retailers (such as Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) are among the 80 companies that have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

The agreement is legally binding and would give workers the right to take their grievances to arbitration. Should the arbitration committee find in favor of the workers, signatory companies would be required to pay damages.

U.S. retailers who have declined to join the Accord cite concerns about legal liability should another catastrophe occur.