Corrected 10-11-2013

Two pacts for Bangladesh factory safety make progress, Maine critics of one are still wary

By Jordan Bailey | Oct 11, 2013
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Karen Saum, left, pointing toward the site of the former Stinson Seafoods sardine packing plant which she and Einor Goldberg, right, filmed in 1979 for their documentary ‘Working Women in Waldo County.’ Behind them is the Penobscot McCrumb potato processing plant. The owners of the plant in 1979, then called Penobscot Frozen Foods, would not let them film inside. A former shoe factory building can also be seen in the top right.

The protests by garment factory workers in Bangladesh — where a factory collapse killed more than 1,100 workers in April — of two weeks ago brought the issue of workers’ rights in that country to the world’s attention again, with two Waldo County residents lending their voices in support.

Larry Dansinger, of Monroe, says “I try to find clothing and items made in the U.S., especially in a union shop. Then I know the product is produced by workers who are treated fairly.”

Dansinger signed an open letter to Senators Mitchell and Snowe that ran in four Maine newspapers, urging them not to endorse the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety — a group of 17 retailers who refused to sign an international agreement on worker safety in Bangladesh. “Please do not let Wal-Mart and Gap draw on you to legitimize an unenforceable, ineffective program,” it read. “Tell them that a binding agreement with the unions in Bangladesh is the only way to save workers’ lives.”

Karen Saum, of Belfast, also signed the open letter. “The disgust I feel at the exploitation of workers is visceral,” she said. “Signing my name on a petition is to do so very little.”

Saum is used to being able to do more. In the 1970s, when there were many factories in Belfast, she worked for the Waldo County Committee for Social Action, a precursor to Waldo County CAP, which offered services supporting low-income workers. Saum was in charge of reporting on whether Belfast factories were following the “equal pay for equal work” law, requiring women to be paid the same rate as men for the same work, at a time when women made up the majority of the workforce in Belfast — women form the majority of workers in Bangladesh garment factories, as well. She found that the factory owners were getting around the law by segregating the work done by men and women, and continuing to pay the women lower wages than men. She also found that the factory owners would respond to increases in the minimum wage by speeding up the lines or increasing quotas, which often left the older workers unable to keep up, and thus out of a job. In 1979, Saum produced a short documentary about the Belfast factories with one of the first grants awarded by the Maine Humanities Council. Elinor Goldberg of Hope did the camera work. The documentary can be viewed online at archive.org/details/WorkingWomenofWaldoCounty.

Now companies can get around U.S. labor laws altogether by contracting manufacturing work to factories in other countries.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, chaired by the International Labor Organization and endorsed by the Secretary General of the UN, U.S. senators and representatives, European Parliament, and the Bangladeshi government, is a binding agreement between retailers, brands and labor organizations with provisions for funding safety renovations, protecting the right of workers to refuse to enter unsafe buildings, and ensuring independent inspections of all factories covered by the pact. It has been signed by 90 retailers and brands from 19 countries.

Seventeen North American retailers and brands, including Wal-Mart, the Gap, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Target and L.L. Bean, have chosen not to sign the Accord, due to concerns about "unlimited liability laws" in Europe, according to previously publisher reports. Instead they formed a separate Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, through the Bipartisan Policy Center, with Maine’s own former Senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe as independent facilitators.

Bjorn Claesson, of the International Labor Rights Forum’s (ILRF) Bangor office, drafted the open letter with other members of his organization. He said, “In every single factory fire and the building collapse, the factories had been audited multiple times. That is why we are suspicious.”

Claesson stated that the Alliance agreement is unilateral and that workers were not involved in its negotiations. He also stated that the workers have no way of enforcing the Alliance agreement.

When asked about the open letter and the criticisms of the ILRF, Alliance President Jeffrey Krilla responded Friday, Oct. 4, that labor organizations were originally invited to participate in the process and that the Alliance hopes they will become engaged in implementation of the agreement. He pointed out components of the Alliance plan which have been advocated by labor leaders, such as democratic elections of the Worker Participation Committee and a fund for workers to be paid from while safety improvements are underway at factories.

About ILRF’s critique that workers would not have a way of enforcing the agreement except by calling a hotline run by Alliance companies, Krilla stated, “The Alliance has identified innovative technology solutions that will allow workers to anonymously report their safety concerns.”

Krilla pointed out the progress the Alliance has made since July. He stated that they have prepared a common set of fire and building safety standards for garment factories which align with the Bangladesh National Building Code, and that the Alliance founding members have completed their factory inventories and are sharing the information with the Fair Factories Clearinghouse.

Claesson argues, “The Alliance’s plan is the same thing they have been doing for 20 years, and it has failed for 20 years. For 20 years, they have been doing CRS [corporate social reporting] audits, and for 20 years there have been fires, workers have been getting hurt, and workers have been killed.”

The Accord launched a website Monday, Oct. 7, at bangladeshaccord.org, which provides information on the nearly 1,600 factories its members do business with. Its FAQs section points out the differences between the two pacts, but also states that Accord members are committed to working with all stakeholders, including the Alliance, to improve worker safety.

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