NEW YORK — Seventeen major North American retailers pledged Wednesday to inspect all of the Bangladeshi factories in their supply chains and help finance safety upgrades, as part of an agreement negotiated by Maine’s former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe.
The retailers — including Maine-based L.L. Bean — also agreed to establish common factory safety standards within three months and create an anonymous hotline to enable workers to report unsafe conditions.
“The discussions were detailed and extensive,” Mitchell said. “While there were many differences on interests and issues, the dominant common theme was the importance — indeed, the necessity — of developing and implementing a meaningful plan of action to dramatically improve worker safety in the garment industry in Bangladesh.”
Clothing retailers and manufacturers have been under intense pressure to commit to stronger safety standards since April, when more than 1,100 people were killed in a factory collapse in Bangladesh.
The collapse came months after a fire killed 112 workers at another factory in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment producer with more than 4 million workers.
The 17 retailers involved in Wednesday’s announcement — including Walmart, Target and The Gap — had declined to join an earlier agreement, known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, involving primarily European retailers and manufacturers.
While the U.S. retailers said their decision was based on concerns about unlimited liability laws in Europe, organized labor groups accused them of pursuing a non-binding pact with weaker worker-rights assurances and enforcement mechanisms.
Critics remained unsatisfied by the agreement announced Wednesday.
Freeport-based L.L. Bean contracts with one vendor in Bangladesh, to produce outdoor gear and backpacks. John Oliver, vice president for public affairs, said Wednesday that the vendor works in a modern factory and must meet L.L. Bean’s “code of conduct” for safety and workers’ rights.
He said L.L. Bean believes that the common safety standards will be more efficient and effective than standards that vary by company.
“We think it’s a good, meaningful agreement that, if fully and aggressively implemented, will have an impact in short order,” Oliver said. “But it isn’t the end product and wasn’t intended to be.”
L.L. Bean was not an original participant in the worker safety effort, but joined after learning that Snowe and Mitchell would act as facilitators, he said.
“This one, we thought had better chances of producing some meaningful results because of George and Olympia’s involvement,” Oliver said.
Mitchell and Snowe — a Democrat and a Republican who are known for their negotiating skills — were brought in to facilitate the discussions through their affiliation with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Mitchell co-founded the Washington-based organization with other former Senate majority leaders, Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Democrat Tom Daschle.
During a news conference Wednesday at the center’s headquarters, speakers focused on the similarities between the two worker safety agreements, rather than the differences, and predicted they would work together to make workers safer.
“This initiative does not represent perfection. There is not any one plan or any one solution that can,” said Snowe, a senior fellow at the center. “But it is many plans working together in a collaborative fashion.”
Scott Nova, executive director of The Worker Rights Consortium, one of the groups involved in negotiating the global pact, called the agreement “a sham,” according to The Associated Press. In particular, he said, the U.S. retailers are trying to minimize any financial obligation.
“Under the Gap/Walmart scheme, the bottom line is limiting the brands’ and retailers’ costs,” Nova said in a prepared statement. “They offer a program that mimics the accord rhetorically, but that omits the features that make an agreement meaningful.”
The two safety plans have many similarities.
Both call for factory inspections, offer worker training and require participating companies to pay into a pool to help fund safety improvements.
But the plans differ on the safety fund. Under the North American agreement, participating companies will be required to contribute as much as $1 million per year depending on the size of their operations in Bangladesh.
The group has already committed $42 million to the initiative and pledged an additional $100 million for loans and other capital to repair factories.
The European version requires participating companies to ensure that there is enough money to help cover safety improvements. Also, it will resolve disputes through arbitration, with the arbitrator’s financial judgments enforceable in a court of law.
Under the North American agreement, members agreed to inspect all Bangladeshi source factories within one year and refuse to work with any that are deemed unsafe.
The companies also pledged to support democratically elected “worker participation committees” at the factories, through which workers could raise concerns, and establish an anonymous hotline operated by an independent third party.
They also committed to working more collaboratively with the Bangladeshi government on “lasting infrastructure and industry improvements,” and to providing semi-annual progress reports.
“We stand here today because we believe companies and government have a responsibility to ensure that the tragedies that have occurred in Bangladesh are not repeated,” said Jay Jorgensen, global chief compliance officer with Walmart. “And we believe if we work together we can prevent and fix unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh.”
Other members of the alliance are Gap Inc., Target, Kohl’s Department Stores, The Children’s Place Retail Stores, Hudson’s Bay Co., IFG Corp., J.C. Penney Corp., The Jones Group Inc., Macy’s, Nordstrom, Public Clothing Co., Sears Holding Corp., VF Corp., Canadian Tire Corp., The Limited and Carter’s Inc.
Snowe and Mitchell played a crucial role during five weeks of negotiations. But that involvement opened them up to criticism from groups in their home state.
This spring, the Maine AFL-CIO and other groups ran large ads in several newspapers in the state urging Mitchell and Snowe to support the European-negotiated agreement.
Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry remained dissatisfied Wednesday, accusing retailers of unveiling an initiative “that will only mask the fact that they are not committed to real change in factories in Bangladesh.”
“We are disappointed and alarmed that two Maine former senators, Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell, helped facilitate this process,” Berry said in a prepared statement. “They have developed strong reputations for being fair and responsible, but they are compromising those reputations by lending their names to this weak and non-enforceable agreement.”
Labor groups were not given a “seat at the table” in the negotiations but were consulted during the process, say those involved in the negotiations.
Some lawmakers also were critical of the agreement.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan and Rep. George Miller of California criticized the plan as “a competing program that borrows the rhetoric of the (European) accord but not its critical elements.”
“The accord, among other things, obligates its members to make the necessary funds available to fix unsafe factories,” Levin and Miller said in a joint statement. “The Walmart/Gap-led plan, called the Alliance, does not.”
Speaking immediately after the news conference, Snowe said she was in contact with Maine labor groups during the process and predicted the “proof will be in the pudding” when it comes to the agreement.
“The agreement we accomplished is positive and it is comprehensive,” Snowe said. “And it can dovetail with the European accord because there isn’t one answer.”
Mitchell also stood behind the group’s work.
“We believe, based on the results produced today, that this is a serious effort to deal with major problems,” Mitchell said. “And we would hope all will join in good faith in making it work.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: