WASHINGTON (AFP) - Seventeen leading US and Canadian clothing retailers announced on Wednesday a programme to enforce safer conditions for workers in Bangladesh garment plants, after the collapse of a factory building killed more than 1,100.
The retailers, led by Walmart and Gap, called the safety record of Bangladesh factories "unacceptable" and said that all parties involved in the country's huge garment export industry needed to be accountable, including factory owners and the government as well as buyers.
The 17 established a five-year programme, the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, to set "aggressive timelines and accountability" for inspections, worker training and worker empowerment, they said in a statement.
"The safety record of Bangladeshi factories is unacceptable and requires our collective effort. We can prevent future tragedies by consolidating and amplifying our individual efforts to bring about real and sustained progress," they said in a statement.
"A primary goal of the alliance is the engagement of and partnership with the Bangladeshi and US governments, as well as with the factory owners to ensure that there is accountability among all parties and thus the opportunity for sustained and lasting change in Bangladesh."
The pact followed a similar commitment by 70 mainly European retailers, together with unions and activist groups, to boost safety in Bangladesh plants, which have a long record of worker deaths from fires and other dangerous conditions.
But labour activists said the agreement by the US and Canadian companies was a weak and unenforceable commitment in comparison, and would not lead to change.
UNI and IndustriALL, which promote worker rights and unions around the world, called the pact "another toothless corporate auditing program" for factory safety.
The pact of the European retailers "provides assurance through a legally binding process that the commitments to inspect and improve garment factories will be carried out," said IndustriALL's general secretary, Jyrki Raina, in a statement.
"This is the highest possible standard and one the Walmart/Gap initiative should be seeking to replicate.
"Instead what it provides is a pale imitation in terms of commitment and transparency," he said.
Both agreements on enforcing safety standards came in the wake of the collapse in April of Rana Plaza, one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
The nine-story building housed several factories that supplied some of the world's biggest names in fashion, and its collapse left 1,129 people dead.
The disaster increased pressure from consumers on the world's largest clothing retailers, like Inditex, H&M, Primark, Gap and Walmart, and threatened to damage Bangladesh's US$20 billion (S$25 billion) garment export industry, second in size only to China.
In late June, the United States said it would remove preferential trade status from Bangladesh to press the government to enforce worker safety.
The new US-Canadian alliance pledged to inspect all its supplier factories within one year, and members agreed to refuse to source products from plants that are determined unsafe.
They plan to share inspection results through a "Fair Factories Clearinghouse", with findings available to factory owners, workers and the government.
In addition, the group pledged to enforce mandatory training and eduction for factory staff and management, and that all factories serving the alliance will have to have democratically elected Worker Participation Committees.
The retailers also agreed to set up an anonymous worker hotline, administered by a third party, to enable workers to report safety problems without fear of retribution.
"All workers, no matter where they live, have the right to a safe environment. Partnership and collaboration are critical to making sure that happens," Walmart, the world's single-largest retailer, said in a separate statement.
"We believe companies and government have a responsibility to ensure that tragedies like those in Bangladesh do not happen again, and that we really can work together to empower government and private parties to act on dangerous safety conditions."
But the UNI and IndustriALL groups said that while the European firms would be legally bound to enforce safety rules and worker protections, the North American pact was designed to avoid legal commitments.
"Under the Walmart/Gap initiative, the bottom line is limiting the brands' and retailers' liability and costs," they said.