Debate: US military clothing stores, the Alliance & the Accord

US military family shops at their base’s Exchange store (CC license, click for source)

In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, two group of corporations have formed who are committing to improvements in Fire and Building safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories. What they’re committing to is quite different, and this difference is beginning to emerge in news stories such as this one in the Huffington Post in January 2014 about ethical sourcing by the US military for the stores on its bases.

How do supporters of the Alliance and the Accord emphasise their similarities and differences, and how do they influence government procurement policies?

Concerned it may undermine their own response to recent factory disasters and cost them business, U.S. clothing makers pressured the Senate to spike a provision in this year’s military spending bill that would have promoted a plan to improve labor standards in Bangladesh. The measure, tucked into versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, would have required so-called exchange stores on military bases to give preferential treatment to suppliers that sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between clothing brands, labor groups and non-governmental organizations in the wake of the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse, which claimed 1,129 lives last year. The amendment was ultimately left out of the defense spending bill that recently landed on President Barack Obama’s desk. …

The military exchanges may be small business compared with the U.S. retail industry as a whole, but the Democrats’ proposal was significant both practically and symbolically. As The New York Times’ Ian Urbina reported in an investigative article last month, plenty of federal agencies don’t practice what American officials have been preaching when it comes to the ethical sourcing of clothing. Several facilities from which the U.S. government has purchased garments on the cheap have been complicit in labor abuses discovered in workplace audits. In the eyes of its crafters, the amendment had a simple underlying message: Markets sanctioned and supported by the U.S. government should be shut off from sweatshop labor.

But in endorsing the accord, the provision ran into opposition from the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a new consortium of mostly U.S. retailers that differs from the accord in key ways. Spearheaded by Gap, Walmart and other retailers that rely on cheap overseas production, the alliance has pledged more than $40 million toward safety, as well as $100 million in low-cost loans to help improve factories. But it does not put members on the hook legally for safety problems in Bangladeshi facilities the way the accord does, nor does it formally include labor unions as stakeholders.

If passed, the amendment on military exchanges would have been an embarrassment to the alliance, since Congress would have essentially endorsed the accord as a stronger approach to improving safety in Bangladesh. It also would have pressured companies whose clothes are sold in the exchanges to consider joining the accord or face losing business. Alliance leaders asked senators to either insert language putting them on equal footing with the accord or to strip out the accord altogether. In a joint letter to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, some of the largest retail and clothing lobbies in the U.S. took a patriotic tack in their argument against the provision — a strategy that would ultimately prove effective on the Hill. They claimed that endorsing the “European” accord in such a way would undermine the primarily “American” alliance that shared the same concerns in Bangladesh. …

The accord is European only insofar as most American retailers declined to join it out of liability concerns. A handful of U.S. companies, including PVH, the parent company to the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, bucked the trend and signed the accord anyway, earning high praise from workplace safety advocates. Rob Wayss, head of operations in Bangladesh for the accord, bristled at the designation of the accord as “European.” “This is not a European initiative,” Wayss told HuffPost. “There are now 132 brands that come from all over the world — Japan, Europe, the U.S., Canada. It’s wrongfully being portrayed as a European initiative. I don’t know what the politics would be, but it’s simplistic and inaccurate.

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Update

For more detailed information on this story, read this International Labor Rights Forum report (published on 12 February 2014)

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