When James F. Moriarty visits Bangladesh, he is greeted with affection.
Members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and many government leaders remember him with warmth for his stint as U.S. ambassador to the country from 2008 to 2011; he is seen as a genuine seeker of solutions.
His recent appointment as executive director of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety comes at a crucial time, as relations between the Alliance, the BGMEA and the government have been sticky over the past few months.
In an exclusive interview, Moriarty spoke about some of the key aspects of his visit to Dhaka, meeting government officials and other stakeholders, and finding a strategic way forward while balancing global and local needs.
WWD: Are targets running much slower, with six factories completed for inspections instead of the 10 percent earlier planned for completion by July?
James F. Moriarty: That was an earlier target, and frankly we ran into issues on everything from fire doors to sprinklers to just plain engineering capability within the country. It became clear that wasn’t going to be realistic. We wish that it was actually going a little bit more quickly, but we are making good progress. In a span of weeks we have completed the first six. So we will hit that 10 percent target, but it wouldn’t be till the end of the year. Fifty-five more factories are expected to be completed by December.
And as the [Alliance] board, we are looking at the act of transition, what goes on over the next few years to make sure the institutions are in place so that the factories are not only safe in 2018 when we close our mandate, but continue to be safe, with systems in place and basically attitudes and systems in place to ensure systems going forward.
WWD: It appears that things on the ground between BGMEA, the government and the Alliance have been a bit tense in recent months.
J.F.M.: A lot of work has been done in Bangladesh over the last two years. In a way, the inspection was the easy part, we worked with the guys who want to be a part of the Alliance, the Alliance paid for all the costs of inspections, corrective action plans got put in place by mutual agreement, people have begun implementing them. Meanwhile, other factory owners and BGMEA who are not part of the Accord or the Alliance realized that they were going to be held to higher standards, too. So this is where people begin to see that we are indeed not calling for only changes in the factories themselves but changes in the way people do business in the country.
I do think, on the other hand, that some of this was to be anticipated as we move towards the compliance phase, towards trying to make sure the transition comes in place.
Has it been more than I expected? No.
When member companies and the U.S. government realize that we are putting in all this effort but we’re still being criticized by either BGMEA or someone else, it hurts a little bit, then you have to remind the BGMEA or the individuals to be a little bit careful. I don’t anticipate it is going to upset efforts at all. I do hear commitment on the part of the industry and the government to try and make this much better.
WWD: Both government officials and the BGMEA were pleased the Alliance had the BGMEA president on the committee. That the president is no longer on the committee didn’t go down very well.
J.F.M.: Basically what we found out is that having the president of BGMEA — and it wasn’t an ex-officio position, it was a personal invitation of the board — probably puts whomever is in that position under a lot of competing pressures. The president has to respond to the needs of the member companies of the organization and then to those of the Alliance member company. It is a conflicting position.
WWD: Is this trip helping to bring the different elements together?
J.F.M.: The most important part of this visit is the strategic planning. We’ve been talking to factory owners, the government, the industry, we’ve had some conversations with labor, just trying to figure out how this puzzle all fits together. In our conversation with minsters and secretaries we have heard consistently that they all appreciate the work of the Alliance and look forward to cooperating. There was a repeated message that they do worry about the cost of remediation and also about the pricing.
With respect to the former, we pointed out that we are working with the IFC program [the International Finance Corporation] and the USAID [United States Agency for International Development], which will address the issue partially. With respect to pricing, I said that there are several factors that are influencing this — as Bangladesh continues to improve its safety record and with things relatively stable we can expect to see at least a partial rebound in prices. So the conversations were very friendly, very positive.
I’ve been here before. I know the politics of the place and I know that politics occasionally makes things more difficult. Part of the thing is to remind people that what they’re saying now can be heard in the outside world.
WWD: Isn’t that partly the most complex part of the Alliance?
J.F.M: There are two separate parts of the role of the Alliance. One initiative is what do we do inside Bangladesh to make things work, and the other is what do we do outside Bangladesh to make things work. And I think we have to make sure that our efforts outside and inside the country are working in tandem, as we work towards the transition in 2018.