WASHINGTON — Labor and worker rights groups allege in a new report that companies involved in the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Gap Inc. and VF Corp. are falling behind on commitments to make factories safe there, potentially jeopardizing the lives of tens of thousands of workers.
Gap responded to the allegations on Monday, defending the steps it has taken to make the factories it uses in Bangladesh safer and reaffirming its commitment as part of the Alliance.
The report, “Dangerous Delays on Worker Safety,” accused the Alliance consortium of “masking deficiencies” in its annual progress reports on safety renovations by “providing general status labels that overstate progress in many cases.”
The Alliance, made up of 29 mainly U.S. firms, reported in its annual report released in October that 55 percent of the targeted high-priority repairs in apparel factories in Bangladesh have been completed.
The industry-led initiative was formed in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy that claimed the lives of 1,133 workers and injured more than 2,000, along with the separate Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, comprised of 200 mostly European companies and two global unions, IndustriALL and UNI Global Union.
The Alliance has been working for nearly three years as part of a five-year commitment to inspect factories in Bangladesh, which number about 685.
“As a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, we are working hard to help drive positive safety changes for garment workers in Bangladesh,” a Gap spokeswoman said. “Today, the 52 garment factories that manufacture clothing for Gap Inc. in Bangladesh are becoming safer, thanks to remediation work that includes installation of sprinkler systems, fire doors, handrails and other safety measures.”
“But we’re not satisfied with the pace of progress, so we are working diligently to ensure that these approved factories complete their safety improvements by the end of 2017, six months before the Alliance is set to sunset its work,” she added. “There is no doubt that we face substantial challenges in completing this work, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to meeting the critical goals we have set and to working with the Alliance, the Accord, the garment industry, government officials, workers and the NGO community to create a safer future for Bangladesh.”
According to the report and allegations, of the 175 Alliance factories examined independently by the coalition, 47 percent were found to have “major” structural problems that have not been corrected, 62 percent lacked viable fire exits, and 62 percent did not have appropriate fire alarm systems.
“Any of the hazards in these categories could be the cause of injury or death to workers,” the report said.
The report was compiled by the International Labor Rights Forum, Worker Rights Consortium, Clean Clothes Campaign and Maquila Solidarity Network.
The coalition said it made a detailed assessment of the safety performance of the factories used by several Alliance member brands by using data from other sources, including detailed information on safety inspections and the status of each required safety renovation from the other industry consortium, the Accord. Some of the Accord’s member companies use the same factories as those of the Alliance’s members.
The Alliance does not disclose which brands and retailers are connected to the factories it reviews in its progress reports, but the labor groups said they were also able to use public factory data and shipments of clothing received at U.S. ports to connect Alliance companies to specific factories.
They focused on factories that had been inspected at least a year and a half ago and were “well past the original deadlines for the completion of safety renovations,” the report said.
The report singled out five Alliance members — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc., Target Corp., VF Corp. and Hudson’s Bay Co. — as companies that allegedly have some production in the 175 factories that were studied.
Wal-Mart, VF and Hudson’s Bay did not respond to a request for comment. Target referred a query to Alliance officials.
“These deficiencies persist even though most of the factories (96 percent) in the sample were inspected well over two years ago,” the report said. “This lack of progress on critical safety issues violates the commitments these brands made when they created the Alliance: to move expeditiously to address urgent safety problems.”
The coalition acknowledged in the report that many of the companies’ factories in Bangladesh have made some safety improvements, but said they have not gone far enough.
“Not having viable fire exits, adequate alarm systems and secure building structures more than two years after most inspections were completed, and thereby leaving hundreds of thousands of workers at risk, cannot be defended,” they charged in the report.
The Alliance said it has suspended 104 factories for various failures to remediate issues, such as removing lockable exits for example, in their corrective action plans.