Several local labor rights organizations mobilized May 21 during a shareholders’ meeting at Gap headquarters in downtown San Francisco, Calif., to urge the retail clothing giant to sign on to an international accord that aims to protect the rights of employees in Bangladesh’s garment factories.
Gap, the second largest buyer of clothing from Bangladesh, has not signed on to the treaty, which was released by a consortium of international labor groups after the eight-story Rana Plaza factory near Dhaka collapsed April 24, killing more than 1,100 workers. Swedish retailer H&M – the largest importer of clothing from Bangladesh – along with several European clothiers, have signed on to the accord.
U.S. retailers account for about 20 percent of garment production in Bangladesh, but large American corporations, including Walmart, Sears, the Gap, and J.C. Penney — who have significant presence in Bangladesh’s garment industry — have not signed on to the accord. PVH, an American company that sells the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod brands, amongst others, is the only U.S. clothier to have signed the treaty (I-W, May 17).
A similar protest is planned against Walmart May 29, at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who sits on Walmart’s board of directors, owns a $5 million penthouse on the 38th floor of the posh hotel. Walmart has said it will not sign on to the treaty as it has its own plans for workplace safety and accountability in Bangladesh.
The Rana Plaza disaster comes on the heels of a November 2012 fire at Tazreen Fashions, which killed 117 people. Gap was not associated with the Rana Plaza factory, but did purchase clothing produced at Tazreen.
Two activists, who were attempting to ward off Gap shareholders from attending the meeting, were arrested during the May 21 protest.
Anu Mandavilli, a spokeswoman for Friends Of South Asia, one of the organizers of the rally, said labor rights organizations have been working on the issue of garment factory workplace safety issues, long before the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which has been termed one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. While activists protested outside Gap’s headquarters, Mandavilli and Kirsten Moller from the Global Exchange used proxies to actually attend the meeting and confronted Gap’s CEO Glen Murphy during the question-and-answer portion of the annual event.
“By charging only 10 cents more per garment, Gap could dramatically change Bangladesh’s garment industry,” Mandavilli told India-West, noting that Gap has 73 factories in the country. “But it is always a race to the bottom in this industry: you’re going to give the contract to whoever produces the goods most cheaply,” the Indian American activist stated, adding that vendors will be certain to take out their share, leaving very little for wages and improving workplace safety.
Mandavilli alleged that the Rana Plaza disaster did not come up once during the shareholders’ meeting, until she and Moller raised the issue.
Murphy said the company was still in discussions about signing on to the treaty, reported Reuters. "We've not given up that a global accord of some kind can be worked out," he said, but added that the proposal at present did not "make sense" for the company.
Zakia Afrin, an adjunct professor of law at Golden Gate University, spoke at the May 21 protest, acknowledging the “paralyzing grief” the Bangladeshi American community is experiencing in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster.”
“In this day and age, it is absolutely deplorable that human lives have less value than commercial products,” she told India-West.
Twenty million people in Bangladesh – mostly women – depend on the garment industry for a living, earning roughly $38 per month, according to several sources. Afrin acknowledged that the status of the country’s mostly Muslim woman has advanced dramatically as they earn their own livelihoods, but added that her own first-hand inspections of the factories revealed deplorable working conditions.
“In one factory, the stairs were so narrow, barely one person could walk through. This creates a potential for death by stampede,” she stated, adding that by default, factories are overcrowded with space for employees given over to state-of-the-art machines. Meal-times and bathroom breaks are strictly monitored, noted Afrin.
The Amsterdam, Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that at least $71 million will be needed to compensate the victims and survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster. The San Francisco Bay Area-based organization SpaandanB – spaandanB.org – mobilized shortly after the Rana Plaza tragedy and collected $52,000 in two days to aid those injured by the collapse. The organization is delivering daily food packets to victims at local hospitals and is working to identify long-term care and permanent housing for survivors.
“The Accord on Building and Fire Safety” sets a framework for governance and credible inspections from its signatories, and mandates that each signer must annually provide a list of suppliers and subcontractors in Bangladesh. The accord also mandates that workers who were disabled at the Tazreen or Rana Plaza factory disasters be retrained for new employment.