In the latest sign of Democrats’ divisions on Wal-Mart, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has urged a Wal-Mart-backed Bangladesh safety group – which congressional Democrats have called everything from a “missed opportunity” to an “important initiative” – to incorporate training factory managers to accept and cooperate with unions as part of its agenda.
As I’ve reported, Western retailers have been under increased scrutiny following the deaths of over 1,200 Bangladesh workers in a November fire and an April building collapse. Both disasters took place in factories from which Wal-Mart had previously sourced garments; in both cases Wal-Mart placed blame on rogue suppliers for filing orders. Following the disaster, over 70 companies, the vast majority of them outside the U.S., have joined a union-backed “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” which labor groups hailed as a new precedent for establishing binding commitments and involving workers in the process of monitoring their own conditions.
Rather than joining in, Wal-Mart and the Gap, along with former Sens. Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell and the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, developed a safety group of their own, the “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety,” whose board is now chaired by former Democratic congresswoman Ellen Tauscher. The Nation’s Lee Fang reported that the public rollout of the group was joined by a private lobbying blitz to win congressional support.
Wal-Mart did not respond to a Thursday request for comment. In July, the retail giant pledged that the Alliance would “move quickly and decisively to create uniform safety standards,” with “worker safety” as its top priority. The same day, the U.S. labor federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win issued a rare joint statement blasting the business-backed Alliance as “weak and worthless,” “a way to avoid accountability, limit costs and silence workers and their representatives,” and an effort to “maintain a system that has a long and bloody record of failure.”
In his letter to Tauscher last week, Menendez urged that the group’s plan to train workers and managers on fire and building safety be expanded to also include training workers on their organizing rights and responsibilities and training managers and owners on “accepting unions in their factories and cooperating with union leaders to improve working conditions." “While I applaud the many initiatives in the Alliance’s action plan to ensure fire and building safety in its members’ factories,” wrote Menendez, “it does not adequately empower the workers in those factories to ensure their own safety.” That tone places the New Jersey senator at a midpoint between the tacks taken by other prominent Democrats.
Reps. George Miller and Sander Levin, the ranking members of the House Committees on Education and the Workforce and Ways and Means, respectively, in July declared themselves “deeply disappointed” that rather than joining the labor-backed accord, Wal-Mart and company “have announced a competing program that borrows the rhetoric of the Accord but not its critical elements.” They charged that “the primary purpose of the Alliance appears to be to limit the retailers’ liability – and therefore their responsibility – in ways that the Accord would not.”
In contrast, Majority Leader Harry Reid released a celebratory statement following the Alliance’s announcement, congratulating the companies involved and saying he was “pleased that American companies are taking positive and significant steps to address a serious situation.” The Nevada Democrat said he found it “encouraging” that businesses saw worker safety as a “priority not just in the United States, but in every place where they operate.”
That statement was met with disbelief by Amirul Haque Amin, the president of the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh, who told Salon in July that he was “really astonished” that a politician “could say that Walmart and their initiative is positive. This is totally wrong.” Scott Nova, who directs the Worker Rights Consortium, emailed at the time that while his group appreciated Reid’s “interest in the issue,” “he should take a closer look at the scheme Walmart and Gap announced. It involves no enforceable commitment by any of these companies to renovate a single unsafe factory and will do little or nothing to protect apparel workers in Bangladesh.” Liana Foxvog, organizing director for the International Labor Rights Forum, noted that Reid has previously expressed support for the labor-backed Accord as well, and said she hoped that would continue.
Asked about Sen. Menendez’s letter and his view of Sen. Reid's praise for the business-backed Alliance, a Menendez spokesperson noted that the Foreign Relations chair had “spent a lot of time on this issue,” including a committee hearing, and that the committee had sent a staffer to Bangladesh to investigate. A spokesperson for Sen. Reid did not respond to a Thursday request for comment.