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Bangladesh: Competing Humanitarian Alliances May Collaborate

In the frenzied aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, all eyes have been on Bangladesh’s struggles to improve factory safety and working conditions, and the obstacles often posed by a dysfunctional government and internecine fighting among multiple interest groups. Less attention has been devoted to the intramural fighting between humanitarian agencies locked in battle sometimes to the detriment of progress.

Almost immediately after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, two competing consortia of retailers who outsource apparel production to factories in Bangladesh have materialized to supervise desperately needed reforms and finance expensive factory improvements. The EU led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (AFBSB) has plans to inspect the approximately 1,000 factories that directly supply them with garments while the US brokered Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (ABWS) intends to cover another 500.

Just as immediately, the two groups were drawn into a vitriolic and highly public feud, each challenging the effectiveness, sincerity and commitment of the other. The European band of apparel missionaries heaped scorn upon its American brokered counterpart, singling out Walmart in particular for not doing enough, and for doing it too slowly. Even some Americans, loathe to be bested in loathing themselves, chimed in. New York City Comptroller John C. Liu plaintively opined, “It’s disappointing that Walmart, Gap and other US retailers have chosen to go their own way with a plan that appears to lack meaningful transparency and accountability.”

But now there are signs of this rift mending. The ABWS named Jeffrey Krilla its new president who hinted at future plans to find avenues of collaboration with the AFBSB. A spokesperson for the ABWS said that it plans to “make progress toward identifying a common, shared set of standards that will ultimately serve to make garment factories in Bangladesh safer.”

Under Krilla’s tutelage, the group has an ambitious agenda. It is developing a more systematic means for documenting worker concerns, formulating a workers’ training program and is creating guidelines for fire and safety standards to be used by factory owners. And it intends to outline new opportunities to work in tandem with other organizations like the AFBSB.

Alliance chairperson Ellen O’Kane Tauscher said, “Jeffrey’s experience championing the rights of workers around the globe makes him the ideal person to lead the Alliance as it seeks to rapidly improve the lives of workers in Bangladesh.”