By  on August 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety said Tuesday it has elected former California Rep. Ellen O’Kane Tauscher as its independent chair. It also signed three new members — Costco Wholesale Corp., Intradeco Apparel and Jordache Enterprises Inc. — making 20 North American apparel retailers and brands that have committed to the alliance’s own plan to improve fire and building safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry in the wake of two tragic factory disasters.

The alliance, which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc., Target Corp. and VF Corp., said the addition of the new members will bring the fund to improve factory safety conditions in Bangladesh and train workers and factory owners to $45 million.

The alliance is also holding its first official two-day board meeting with Tauscher in Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday, where members will be briefed on the progress of implementing its safety initiative. The meeting will also focus on areas such as the development of a common fire and building safety standard and inspection protocol, and a fire and safety training curriculum for factory managers and employees. The alliance expects to announce the selection of its operating team, including an executive director for the program, next month.

Tauscher, who has been elected to a three-year term to the alliance’s board, brings strong credentials, having served seven terms in Congress and as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs from 2009 to 2012. She helped negotiate the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia while at the State Department.

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In her most recent stint in the private sector at Baker Donelson Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, in Washington, Tauscher worked as a strategic adviser to clients in national security, defense, transportation, export control and energy policy areas.

“I am [pleased] to be part of this unique public-private partnership between companies and stakeholders who want to materially change the safety and work conditions of tens of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers,” said Tauscher. “This is an enormous challenge, but one well worth the time, effort and investment, as it will not only provide real change for the Bangladeshi workers, but this Alliance endeavor could serve as a global model for collaboration.”

Tauscher will lead the alliance during a challenging time, with global scrutiny that has been cast on Bangladesh’s garment industry in the wake of the Tazreen Fashions fire that killed 112 garment workers in late November and the Rana Plaza building collapse that claimed the lives of more than 1,120 workers and injured hundreds of others.

The alliance launched the “Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative” in early July, which the group said is a binding, five-year initiative that will cover more than 500 factories in Bangladesh. The new plan will also provide more than $100 million in loans and access to capital to assist factory owners in making safety improvements. It calls for inspections of 100 percent of the alliance members’ factories in Bangladesh within the first year, the development of common safety standards within three months, public sharing of all inspections and democratically elected worker participation committees at every factory. In addition, the alliance will release a semiannual progress report and attempt to forge a stronger partnership with the Bangladeshi government.

In a phone interview with WWD before her first board meeting, Tauscher said the alliance is “unique” and a “one-of-a-kind” in North America.

“It’s really a model for future industries and this industry to do this kind of work with other countries to uplift worker safety and many other issues for workers around world,” she said. “This is a framework that is very new and it is a challenging paradigm but…I think everyone is aware of this and knows that it is very worthwhile and that it is very important to do.”

However, criticism has been leveled against the North American retailers and brands in the alliance by worker rights’ groups and unions for declining to sign another initiative, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is led by the IndustriALL Global Union and signed by more than 80 primarily European brands and retailers.

But Tauscher indicated it is time for a period of détente between the two initiatives.

“I think what’s important to realize is that there can’t be too many trying to help the people of Bangladesh and the workers getting safety in the workplace and having better lives,” she said. “This is not a competition. This is a collaboration. It is important for us to be able  to move forward together and I think we will. There are lots of things that need be done and lots of talent and energy that need to be applied. We look forward to collaborating with the accord on a number of things, including standards, and I am anxious to get to work to build that collaboration between the Alliance and the Accord.”

The Alliance’s four board members representing companies include Daniel Duty, vice president of global affairs for Target; Jay Jorgensen, senior vice president and global chief compliance officer for Wal-Mart Stores; Tom Nelson, vice president for global product procurement for VF Brands, and Bobbi Silten, senior vice president of global responsibility for Gap Inc. and president of the Gap Foundation.

The board also includes four other stakeholders — James F. Moriarty, former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh; Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing & Exporters Association; Randy Tucker, global leader of the fire protection and safety team at CCRD, a Houston-based engineering firm, and Muhammad Rumee Ali, managing director of enterprises at BRAC, the international nongovernmental organization founded in Bangladesh.

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