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Activists Push Wal-Mart on Bangladesh, Worker Treatment

North American alliance is moving forward with their own fire and safety plan for the Asian country.

Labor activists continued to make their case Monday for why they think Wal-Mart Stores Inc. doesn’t treat its workers properly in the U.S. or in its contract factories in Bangladesh, as U.S. retailers moved forward with their own fire and safety plan for the Asian country.

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Tseshai Almac, a member of the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, or OUR Wal-Mart — an organization of Wal-Mart associates calling for change at the company on a range of issues — met with reporters in New York following their vigil and appearance at Wal-Mart’s annual meeting in Bentonville, Ark., on Friday.

At the same time, the North American retail and brand alliance led by Wal-Mart and Gap Inc. outlined five key goals at a meeting in Washington on Friday as it works to expedite its own fire and building safety plan in Bangladesh, in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse in April that has claimed the lives of 1,129 garment workers.

The meeting with leading retailers, brands and industry associations was facilitated by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Former Senate Majority Leader and BPC cofounder George J. Mitchell and former Sen. Olympia Snowe led the discussions with a broad range of stakeholders, including experts from the U.S. and Bangladesh governments, as well as worker rights organizations and the safety industry.

RELATED STORY: Senate Panel Blasts U.S. Firms Over Bangladesh Accord >>

In recent days, the alliance has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers and labor groups for declining to sign an existing, legally binding accord that 43 mostly European retailers and brands have signed. That accord is led by IndustriALL Global Union and other labor groups and includes three U.S. firms — PVH Corp., Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Sean John.

But the North American companies making up the Wal-Mart- and Gap-led alliance have cited concerns over legal liabilities with the binding international accord and are instead formulating their own safety plan they hope to unveil next month.

Akter said her group has targeted Wal-Mart for not signing the international accord because it is the second-largest apparel exporter from Bangladesh after H&M, which has signed it. As for Gap, she said the company is the focus of its negative attention for two reasons — the retailer has long lauded its corporate social responsibility policies as being among the best in the retail community, and it said it was close — “within six sentences” — of signing the IndustriALL accord and then backed away.

Almac noted that she is one of about 100 Wal-Mart employees who have been “on strike” for about two weeks leading up to the annual meeting to bring attention to what OUR Wal-Mart charges is unfair treatment of its employees on a range of issues, from low salaries and gender bias to unsafe working conditions, a lack of a voice for workers at the company and what she terms “retaliation” firings of workers who have spoken out.

She said, “It is not our current goal to become a union. We are looking for change at Wal-Mart from within.” Almac said she now plans to go back to her job as a support manager at a Wal-Mart store in Los Angeles, where she will “continue to speak out about the changes that are needed at the company,” which also include “understaffing that has led to empty shelves.”

Akter said her group is also looking for internal change at Wal-Mart regarding its sourcing policies.

“We want Wal-Mart to sign the international accord because we feel it’s the best way to see improvement in safety and worker conditions, with accountability such as the companies paying for needed improvement and repairs and recognition of unions so the workers can have a voice,” she said. “We also feel, and independent groups have showed, that if Wal-Mart paid just 10 cents more a garment, it would pay for making the factories safe.”

The charges and complaints Akter and Almac made on Monday weren’t new, and Wal-Mart has responded and addressed them in one form or another in the past. This includes its decision to help create the North American retailer alliance to address Bangladesh factory safety and not participate in the international agreement.

The alliance said the five areas on which it’s focusing are developing a plan for worker training and empowerment, creating fire and building safety assessment standards, sharing factory inspections and training information, establishing governance for the alliance and funding.

The new alliance includes retailers and brands, as well as representatives from industry associations, including the American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Apparel Federation. Gap and Wal-Mart are both members of RILA and NRF. RILA members include major retailers such as J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Target Corp. and Sears Holdings Corp., while Macy’s Inc., Saks Inc. and Neiman Marcus Inc. are NRF members.

“We had a very productive day of discussions,” said BPC president Jason Grumet. “The alliance was particularly gratified to be joined by Bangladesh Ambassador to the U.S. Akramul Qader, who informed the group of current progress on the ground and the serious challenges that remain. BPC welcomes continued involvement in this important effort to improve worker safety in Bangladesh.”

BPC said the alliance will continue to hold discussions in the coming weeks, “designed to achieve effective and long-lasting change for the industry and its workers.”