July 11, 2013

Deal seeks safety for Bangladesh garment workers

But critics say L.L. Bean and 16 other retailers fall short in the plan negotiated by two former Maine senators.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Seventeen major North American retailers pledged Wednesday to inspect all of the Bangladeshi factories in their supply chains and help finance safety upgrades, as part of an agreement negotiated by Maine's former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe.

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In this June 14, 2013 file photo, Bangladeshi Hashna holds a picture of her sister Josna Khatun, 18 years old, who was a garment worker and is missing following the collapse of the Rana Plaza building poses next to the rubble in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. A group of 17 U.S. retailers and clothing makers have agreed to a five-year safety pact aimed at improving conditions after the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry killed more than 1,100 people. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

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Former Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell talk Wednesday following a press conference in Washington D.C. during which they unveiled a Bangladesh factory safety agreement among major North American clothing retailers who work with garment factories. Mitchell and Snowe facilitated the discussions with retailers as part of the Bipartisan Policy Center, an organization co-founded by Mitchell.

Photo by Greg Gibson / Bipartisan Policy Center

Additional Photos Below

The retailers -- including Maine-based L.L. Bean -- also agreed to establish common factory safety standards within three months and create an anonymous hotline to enable workers to report unsafe conditions.

"The discussions were detailed and extensive," Mitchell said. "While there were many differences on interests and issues, the dominant common theme was the importance -- indeed, the necessity -- of developing and implementing a meaningful plan of action to dramatically improve worker safety in the garment industry in Bangladesh."

Clothing retailers and manufacturers have been under intense pressure to commit to stronger safety standards since April, when more than 1,100 people were killed in a factory collapse in Bangladesh.

The collapse came months after a fire killed 112 workers at another factory in Bangladesh, the world's second-largest garment producer with more than 4 million workers.

The 17 retailers involved in Wednesday's announcement -- including Walmart, Target and The Gap -- had declined to join an earlier agreement, known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, involving primarily European retailers and manufacturers.

While the U.S. retailers said their decision was based on concerns about unlimited liability laws in Europe, organized labor groups accused them of pursuing a non-binding pact with weaker worker-rights assurances and enforcement mechanisms.

Critics remained unsatisfied by the agreement announced Wednesday.

Freeport-based L.L. Bean contracts with one vendor in Bangladesh, to produce outdoor gear and backpacks. John Oliver, vice president for public affairs, said Wednesday that the vendor works in a modern factory and must meet L.L. Bean's "code of conduct" for safety and workers' rights.

He said L.L. Bean believes that the common safety standards will be more efficient and effective than standards that vary by company.

"We think it's a good, meaningful agreement that, if fully and aggressively implemented, will have an impact in short order," Oliver said. "But it isn't the end product and wasn't intended to be."

L.L. Bean was not an original participant in the worker safety effort, but joined after learning that Snowe and Mitchell would act as facilitators, he said.

"This one, we thought had better chances of producing some meaningful results because of George and Olympia's involvement," Oliver said.

Mitchell and Snowe -- a Democrat and a Republican who are known for their negotiating skills -- were brought in to facilitate the discussions through their affiliation with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Mitchell co-founded the Washington-based organization with other former Senate majority leaders, Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Democrat Tom Daschle.

During a news conference Wednesday at the center's headquarters, speakers focused on the similarities between the two worker safety agreements, rather than the differences, and predicted they would work together to make workers safer.

"This initiative does not represent perfection. There is not any one plan or any one solution that can," said Snowe, a senior fellow at the center. "But it is many plans working together in a collaborative fashion."

Scott Nova, executive director of The Worker Rights Consortium, one of the groups involved in negotiating the global pact, called the agreement "a sham," according to The Associated Press. In particular, he said, the U.S. retailers are trying to minimize any financial obligation.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Bangladeshi garment workers, relatives and activists participate in a protest demanding that companies sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Savar, Bangladesh, on June 29, 2013.



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