The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April that killed more than 1,100 workers in one of the worst industrial disasters in history exposed the unsafe working conditions that garment workers — many of them women — endure across the developing world. The tragedy also revealed the inconsistencies of some companies with respect to corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Take the case of Walmart. One month after the disaster, the world’s biggest retailer refused to sign on to the safety measures adopted by more than a dozen European firms. Those companies — including H&M, Carrefour and Marks & Spencer — backed a plan in which they agreed to have rigorous, independent inspections of the factories they contract with in Bangladesh and to help pay for improvements in building safety.
Gap, too, has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the initiative. The world’s third-largest apparel company says it supports much of the plan, but has suggested a change to it that would significantly restrict any legal liability for a company that violated it. (Gap did not use workshops in Rana Plaza. Walmart has said that no authorized Walmart production occurred there, but one of the factory’s workshops, Ether Tex, listed the retailer as a customer on its website.)
Instead, both Walmart and Gap, along with other retailers and the main retail federations, are forging their own plan to promote safety in Bangladesh’s apparel industry. This effort, announced last week, will seek to “develop and implement a new program to improve fire and safety regulations in the garment factories of Bangladesh,” according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the nonprofit group that is spearheading the plan.
Despite their high-profile — and widely criticized — resistance to the originally proposed safety measures, Walmart and Gap would no doubt be quick to cite their initiatives in other areas: Gap is often considered an industry leader in CSR, and both companies have proclaimed themselves as champions of efforts promoting women. Two years ago, Walmart launched its Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which doubled the money the firm spends on women-owned businesses and provides women around the world with job training and access to education, according to the Initiative’s website. Gap, in 2007, instituted P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement), a program to help female garment workers in developing countries advance beyond entry-level positions.
Published: June 05, 2013 in Knowledge@Wharton