Friday, March 7, 2014
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In this June 14, 2013 file photo, Bangladeshi Hashna holds a picture of her sister Josna Khatun, 18 years old, who was a garment worker and is missing following the collapse of the Rana Plaza building poses next to the rubble in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. A group of 17 U.S. retailers and clothing makers have agreed to a five-year safety pact aimed at improving conditions after the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry killed more than 1,100 people. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
Former Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell talk Wednesday following a press conference in Washington D.C. during which they unveiled a Bangladesh factory safety agreement among major North American clothing retailers who work with garment factories. Mitchell and Snowe facilitated the discussions with retailers as part of the Bipartisan Policy Center, an organization co-founded by Mitchell.
Photo by Greg Gibson / Bipartisan Policy Center
"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:
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Bangladeshi garment workers, relatives and activists participate in a protest demanding that companies sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Savar, Bangladesh, on June 29, 2013.