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U.S. retailers bear responsibility for Bangladesh tragedy

Stuart Appelbaum President | , Rwdsu | 5/23/2013, 1:03 p.m.
On April 24, an eight-story commercial building in Bangladesh, home to a number of clothing...
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On April 24, an eight-story commercial building in Bangladesh, home to a number of clothing factories, collapsed. A stunning 1,127 people were killed, along with over 2,500 people injured in what is being considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history.

The factories housed in the collapsed Rana Plaza produced clothes for numerous global retailers, and suppliers and retailers around the world bear much of the responsibility for this outrageous health and safety disaster.

The Rana Plaza building was known to have structural issues when large cracks were discovered in the building. Shops and the bank on the lower floors of the building had been closed, but garment workers were ordered to return to work despite the warnings that the building was in a dangerous state. The bosses who ordered these employees back into the building have blood on their hands, but so do companies who insist on the cheapest possible products with little regard for the workplace conditions of their suppliers or the welfare of the workers who toil in unsafe factories.

The Bangladesh building collapse was an unspeakable tragedy, and one that can only be avoided in the future if suppliers and retailers take global workplace health and safety seriously. To this end, we urge all global retail companies to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which calls for corporations to take responsibility for the health and safety conditions at their suppliers' factories. The accord was created last year by IndustriALL and UNI, global union federations, in negotiations with global corporations. The RWDSU is affiliated with UNI.

Companies who sign the accord agree to establish fire and building safety programs at the Bangladeshi factories that supply their goods within 45 days of signing the accord. So far, a number of retailers--including Swedish-owned H&M, where over 1,100 RWDSU Local 1102 members in New York are employed--have signed onto the document. But with a few exceptions, it's been mostly European-owned companies who have stepped up to the plate.

Many large Western companies, including the Gap, have refused to sign the accord. Wal-Mart, which uses 279 factories in Bangladesh, says it is "not in a position to sign the accord," declaring instead that it will create its own inspection and safety program in Bangladesh. But can we really trust giant corporations like Wal-Mart to police themselves and do what is right? Time and again they have let down their workers, often with fatal consequences.

The agreement by many global retailers to sign the accord, along with the Bangladeshi government changing its laws to make it easier for workers to unionize, are important steps toward changing the dangerous workplace conditions in Bangladesh. But customers of stores like the Gap and Wal-Mart need to tell those companies to get on board or risk losing their business. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is not a paper tiger created for public relations value--it is a legally binding document, with sanctions in place for non-compliance.

Signing the accord is the best way global retailers can show they are finally putting the safety of their workers above profits, and it's the best way to avoid future tragedies and the blood on their hands that accompanies them.