The media reports about the catastrophic Bangladesh garment factory collapse last year were gripping and stark. Families held up photos of those missing and lined up to identify those killed. Rescue workers pulled survivors from the rubble and comforted the injured. The official government death toll eventually reached 1,134.
The efforts to improve worker safety in the aftermath of April’s Rana Plaza events make for much less vivid coverage, but they still demand the attention of anyone who wants to prevent more tragedies like that one. Some of the companies that sell goods made in Bangladesh have committed themselves to hiring safety inspectors and paying for any needed safety improvements. Others, though — including Gap, Walmart and Maine’s own L.L. Bean — signed on to a weaker, voluntary agreement.
L.L. Bean can and should reconsider. The 3.2 million employees of the garment industry in Bangladesh still work in substandard conditions, and the company could help make a lot of people’s lives better if it chooses to leverage its globally known brand on their behalf.
The factory collapse yielded two worker safety initiatives. The European-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is legally binding, with sanctions for noncompliance. It requires companies to conduct independent inspections and ensure that “sufficient funds are available to pay for renovations and other safety improvements.” Suspected violations will be addressed through arbitration, with the arbitrator’s financial judgments enforceable in a court of law.
The U.S.-led Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, on the other hand, encourages factory inspections by private companies, doesn’t mandate remedies and calls for retailers to share the cost of fixes with the Bangladeshi government and factory owners.
When the European plan was announced, L.L. Bean said it was opting out because of its limited presence in Bangladesh, making it more practical for the company to work with its one vendor there than to take part in a joint safety initiative. This doesn’t explain, though, why the retailer then changed its mind, joined forces with other firms and expressed its support for common safety standards. In an email Wednesday, L.L. Bean said it signed on to the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative “to further broaden the effort” to forestall factory disasters and “create a new threshold for health and safety standards” at factories.
The European and U.S. groups have since agreed on a single set of standards. It will take time to implement them, though, especially in factories overseen under the North American plan, which depends on voluntary participation to effect change. An approach that can’t be enforced doesn’t have a track record of success. U.S. physicians started urging automakers to provide seat belts in cars in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that a law mandating seat belt installation was passed. And it wasn’t until states took tobacco companies to court that cigarette makers paid people’s medical bills for smoking-related illnesses.
In Bangladesh, survivors and families of those killed at Rana Plaza are still awaiting compensation from companies that were selling goods produced at the factory. L.L. Bean isn’t one of those companies — its vendor is in a different part of Bangladesh from the site of the collapse. But it still has the power to work with other major retailers to forestall similar disasters. And given its stature as an icon of community-minded business, the company should use it.