US buyers announce new plan for factory safety in Bangladesh

Feeling pressure from consumer and labour groups for not doing more to ensure factory safety in Bangladesh, Wal-Mart, Gap and numerous other retailers along with the nation's main retail federations are seeking to forge a new plan to promote safety in that country's apparel industry, according to website

This effort, to be spearheaded by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington, was announced on Thursday, two and a half weeks after dozens of retailers and apparel companies, almost all of them European, announced a far-reaching plan aimed at ensuring factory safety in Bangladesh.

As part of the new effort, the National Retail Federation, the American Apparel and Footwear Association as well as Gap, JCPenney, Sears, Target, Wal-Mart and other retailers, will seek to "develop and implement a new programme to improve fire and safety regulations in the garment factories of Bangladesh," according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

This effort will be led by two prominent members of that group, former Senators George J. Mitchell, a Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican, both from Maine.

But some labour advocates called the effort divisive and a sham.

After a factory building collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, killing at least 1,127 workers, Western retailers faced more pressure than ever to take action to ensure factory safety in that country, the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China. In response, H&M, Carrefour, Marks & Spencer and more than two dozen other European companies backed a binding plan in which they agreed to rigorous independent inspections of the factories they use in Bangladesh and to help finance improvements for fire and building safety.

Only a few American retailers signed on, however. On Thursday, Sean John, the fashion company run by Sean Combs, announced that it would become the third United States company to join, following PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Abercrombie & Fitch. Loblaw, a Canadian retailer that produces the Joe Fresh clothing line, has also joined that plan.

With about 40 companies signed on to that plan, Gap, the Children's Place and several other American retailers have faced protests and a flood of Facebook posts, urging them to join.

Bill Chandler, a Gap spokesman, welcomed the new effort. "We see the American alliance as a powerful path forward," he said. Jessica Deede, a Target spokeswoman, said, "We have been engaged with the Bipartisan Policy Center's initiative as a potential solution."

The center said Mr. Mitchell, Ms. Snowe and the North American retailers would seek to release their plan by early July. The effort also includes the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Retail Council of Canada.

In assessing the new plan by American retailers, Richard M. Locke, an expert on overseas manufacturing at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., said, "I think they must be feeling the heat because people are asking them, 'Why don't you join this other initiative?' "

Professor Locke added: "The idea that you would bring all these people together in this new effort is a good first step. But I don't think it's good to have competing initiatives."

Philip J. Jennings, general secretary of Uni Global Union, a worldwide federation of 20 million retail and service workers that helped develop the initial Bangladesh factory safety plan, criticised the new effort.

"It's a sham," he said. "There is no valid reason why they can't join the initiative we have launched. It has been well received," he said, adding, "Now they seem to want to paddle their own canoe on their own terms."

Officials from several American retailers have voiced concern that their companies would face large legal liability if they were to join the European-dominated plan. But several backers of that accord say the Americans are shying away because they dislike the binding obligations and potential costs of the plan.

On Wednesday, officials from Wal-Mart, Gap and several other retailers met in New York to begin moving ahead with the plan. Kevin Gardner, a Wal-Mart spokesman, lauded the effort, saying, "There is a need to partner with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry."