After Bangladesh, American Firms Criticized for Refusing Reform

An international agreement designed to prevent future garment-factory disasters like the one that struck Bangladesh in April has attracted European support, but many large American companies are declining to participate.

Named the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” the agreement calls for “a five-year commitment from participating retailers to conduct independent safety inspections of factories and pay up to $500,000 per year toward safety improvements.”

Abercrombie & Fitch (which made headlines recently for its domestic labor practices) joined the agreement, as did PVH, parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. 14 other large North American retailers chose not to sign on.

Gap, a representative non-signatory, claims that the agreement would expose the company to unacceptable liability, but the agreement’s proponents dismiss that rationale:

“In the United States, there’s maybe a bigger legal risk than there is in Europe,” Gap’s chief executive, Glenn Murphy, responded. “If we were to sign onto something that had unlimited legal liability and risk, I think our shareholders should care about that.”

Whether the new accord would subject retailers to substantial legal risks has been debated since nearly three dozen European retailers embraced the plan last week while almost all major American companies shunned it. The plan […] was forged by retailers, union leaders and government officials overseas.

Labor advocacy groups and other supporters of the plan pilloried the responses by Gap, Wal-Mart and other American retailers that have decided to rely on their own inspection systems rather than join the plan.

There is some truth to the idea that European companies have less to worry about; their legal system hobbles the representation available to plaintiffs: “[C]ourts in Europe generally prohibit class-action lawsuits, do not allow contingency fees for lawyers who win cases and require losing parties to pay legal fees for both sides.”

The Times spoke to a Columbia law professor who pointed out that, despite American firms’ greater legal exposure, a recent Supreme Court decision (Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum) actually reduced corporations’ risk significantly by weakening the ability of foreign workers to sue in American courts.

It is our position that, at least with respect to safety, all workers that American companies profit from should be treated the same. We no longer accept the proposition that an American company can dump oil or chemicals in the ocean so long as it is not near American shorelines—nor should we accept the abuse of workers simply because it is not on our soil.

We enthusiastically support unions like UNI Global Union and Industriall, and organizations like the Workers Rights Consortium and the GlobalWorks Foundation, as well as all others like them who are laboring to make these changes a reality.

All Americans share responsibility for the livelihood and safety of those workers who, in their current workplace conditions, risk their lives daily to create the products we buy.