Abercrombie & Fitch Joins Bangladesh Safety Accord as Other American Retailers Develop Competing Initiative

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Abercrombie and Fitch has become only the second American brand, after Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger parent company PVH, to sign the Bangladesh fire and safety accord,WWD is reporting. The retailer joins the 30 some companies–mostly European–who have signed onto the IndustriALL Global Union-led agreement including H&M, Zara, Topshop, Mango, Bennetton, and Joe Fresh.
Gap and Wal-Mart, two of the world’s biggest retailers who routinely produce out of Bangladesh, still have not signed the accord. Wal-Mart revealed on Tuesday it would be pursuing it’s own initiative to improve worker safety in Bangladesh–and now it looks like other American retailers will be following a similar path.
Yesterday, the newly-created North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group unveiled their own initiative, which, in contrast to the accord, is not legally-binding. The Safer Factories Initiative aims to make “meaningful improvements” to worker safety in Bangladesh by establishing a “sustainable funding mechanism for training, upgrades of factory structures and ensuring the safety of new construction.”
The plan was developed by American retailers and six U.S. and Canadian industry associations, including the National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, American Apparel & Footwear Association, U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Apparel Federation.
No retailer has signed onto the Safer Factories Initiative yet, however the agreement addresses Gap’s concerns over the legally binding nature of the Bangladesh fire and safety accord. Gap has said it will sign the accord if that aspect is adjusted. Now, however, Gap will have the option of signing the Safer Factories Initiative.
While the goal of the two separate agreements is ostensibly the same–to create safer working conditions in Bangladesh–tension between the two groups is high.
Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the NRF, who helped develop the American plan, criticized IndustriALL’s legally binding accord.
“The IndustriALL plan isn’t a plan at all. It gives no clear path to practical and immediate solutions to the challenges facing the Bangladeshi garment industry. It seeks major funding by private business without providing accountability for how funds are spent, as well as binding retailers to specific resourcing requirements without taking into account the impracticality of such a requirement. And it exposes American companies to a legally questionable binding arbitration provision, a process that serves only the unions, not the workers they represent.”
Judy Gearhart, executive director at the International Labor Rights Forum, fired back that the NRF’s Safer Factories Initiative falls short in several ways.
“The trade unions and labor rights groups and NGOs are very much united in this idea that we can’t continue with voluntary programs especially when it comes to worker lives. I find it interesting they [NRF] are implying in their language here that this is all about the interests of unions and not about the interests of workers. And your interest is about the workers and not about the bottom line? Is that what you are saying? I think to put unions down as not being concerned about workers is misplaced.”
UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings had some particularly scathing words for Wal-Mart and Gap. “Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is out of step. By not signing up, the Wal-Mart brand sinks to a new low,” Jennings said. “Equally, Gap’s refusal to join is a mistake that shoppers will not forget. We will make progress without them.”
While the deadline to sign onto the IndustriALL Global Union-led accord passed yesterday, general secretary Jyrki Raina said it would “not close the door on brands who want to join the accord after the deadline.”
“But,” he added, “We will be forging ahead with the implementation plan from today.” With or without the Americans’ support.