Walmart’s Worker-Safety Plan Draws Ire of Labor Activists

Proposals to safeguard worker rights in developing nations in the wake of Bangladesh's Rana Plaza factory collapse are trashed by labor activists

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Taslima Akhter for TIME

The collapsed Rana Plaza in the Savar neighborhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on June 1, 2013

Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapse on April 24 claimed the lives of 1,129 garment workers and opened the world’s eyes to the true cost of cheap, throwaway fashion. A public outcry in the wake of the disaster, in the Savar neighborhood outside the capital, Dhaka, led to calls for codifying labor rights to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future. But some of the world’s largest retailers have been reticent, putting profits before safety, according to rights activists. On Wednesday, Walmart, Gap and other major high-street brands revealed their latest proposal. Worker groups, however, remain unconvinced.

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Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel exporter, with about 4 million people involved in the industry, toiling in often sweatshop conditions for subsistence wages. The Obama Administration suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh last month to push its government to remedy this situation. Retailers have similarly been under pressure, and the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative is the latest plan spearheaded by Walmart to improve working conditions. Features include funding safety upgrades, holding inspections and providing employees with a hotline to report complaints.

Yet criticism has been fierce. Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), believes that one of the major tenets of the plan — a fund to improve facilities so that they meet safety regulations — is fatally flawed. While the Worker Safety Initiative does provide funds for improving workplace safety, companies are not legally responsible for making the repairs. Moreover, the level of funding discussed is paltry compared with requirements. Companies involved — including J.C. Penney, Target, Macy’s, Sears, Nordstrom and L.L. Bean — have so far raised $42 million in grants to improve factory infrastructure and $100 million in low-rate loans and access to capital. But Foxvog and other experts estimate the cost of necessary improvements would be $300,000 to $500,000 per factory, possibly reaching $1 billion in total.

Of course, funding safety upgrades is only half the battle. Unless retailers pay workers’ salaries during factory renovation, many would lose their income for months, leaving them destitute. Such provisions are conspicuously lacking in the Worker Safety Initiative. Brian Finnegan of AFL-CIO, the U.S.’s largest labor-union federation, echoes many of the ILRF’s concerns, and adds that the process by which the Worker Safety Initiative was formulated all but guarantees failure. “The only people negotiating [the agreement] are companies,” says Finnegan. “There was no one on the other side of the table here.” Finnegan thinks that independent investigators should conduct factory inspections instead of the businesses themselves, but that even this has problems, as workers can be easily intimidated into giving false statements.

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Rights groups are also skeptical of Walmart and other alliance members’ claim that empowering worker-participation committees and providing an anonymous phone line to report violations will make a tangible difference. Charles Kernaghan, director of the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, described the worker committees as “completely useless” and generally pawns of factory owners. When workers genuinely attempt to collectively organize, Kernaghan says, they are savagely threatened. Foxvog was equally dismissive of the complaints hotline, stating that these go directly to the company with no independent means of verification or ensuring meaningful action is taken.

Damningly for Walmart and other Worker Safety Initiative backers, virtually all workers’-rights groups advocate a separate plan, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which has already been signed by at least 70 mostly European retailers and some American companies, such as Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Unlike the Worker Safety Initiative, the Accord 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. Rights groups are not alone in favoring the Accord. Senior Democratic Congressmen Sander Levin and George Miller said they were “deeply disappointed” that U.S. retailers are pushing the alternative Worker Safety Initiative “that borrows the rhetoric of the Accord but not its critical elements.”

Those mainly American companies that reject the Accord cite fears of increased legal liability. Johan Lubbe, a legal adviser to the National Retail Federation, has said that because of comparatively lax class-action laws that favor the plaintiff, American firms would be on the hook for huge sums in the event of another catastrophe. But in a recent editorial for the Los Angeles Times, two law professors disputed this claim, saying that the only legal liability for signatories would be to abide by its terms. Foxvog was equally unconvinced, pointing out that the only enforcement mechanism of the Accord is a neutral arbitrator, and has nothing to do with class-action suits.

In a statement, the AFL-CIO implied that the weakened plan was nothing but a smokescreen. “Rather than sign the binding Accord,” read the statement, “Walmart and Gap are pushing a weak and worthless plan that avoids enforceable commitments.” While the horrors of Rana Plaza remain burned into the minds of working men and women everywhere, it appears some of the world’s richest companies have much shorter memories.

MORE: Dying for Some New Clothes: Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza Tragedy