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Alliance Defends Itself in Bangladesh; Will Cover Wages for Workers at Closed Factories

On Thursday, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (ABWS) convened a special press conference both to discuss its achievements over the last year and to announce future plans for progress.

The press conference was led by Ellen Tauscher, the chair of ABWS and a former U.S. Congresswoman. She touted the accomplishments of the organization, focusing on its efforts to craft new building codes to apply to factories and to assist in the training of workers and factory management in monitoring the safety and labor conditions of their work environments. She also noted that the ABWS, a consortia of twenty-six retailers, created a $5 million fund to subsidize the costs of infrastructural improvement and training. Out of that money, approximately $2.2 million is slated to be disbursed to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza catastrophe.

The most explosive announcement, though, was Tauscher’s pledge that the ABWS would cover workers’ salaries for up to two months while factories that failed inspection were closed for renovation. She told reporters at the Westin Hotel in Dhaka, “Upon inspecting the factories, we understand the state of the owners. The Alliance has agreed to pay 50 percent of the workers’ two months wages, in case a factory needs to be partially closed for remediation. If a factory is closed for an indefinite period, workers have the opportunity to go for jobs in other factories.”

After the Rana Plaza tragedy last April, two consortia of retailers who outsource apparel production to factories in Bangladesh were separately created to supervise desperately needed reforms and finance costly factory improvements. The E.U.-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (AFBSB) plans to inspect the approximately 1,000 factories that directly supply them with garments. The ABWS covers another 700.

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The ABWS has been the target of intense criticism, often directed at it by officials at the AFBSB. Unlike the AFBSB, the ABWS is not structured as a legally binding agreement, and so decisions regarding compliance and funding have to be voluntarily accepted by each member, irrespective of majority determination. The AFBSB is legally binding, and so can compel its signatories to comply with its decisions.

Tension between the two organizations has begun to subside as evidenced by recent collaborations. The two groups finally arrived at an agreement regarding the new inspection standards that will apply to all signatory members. These standards largely apply to factory building safety with particular reference to fire and electrical ordinances. As AFBSB’s website explains, the new strictures are the result of a collaborative effort that involved input from several sources: the National Tripartite Plan of Action, the Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety (ABWS) and the International Labor Organization. The final product is based on the existing Bangladesh National Building Code, albeit in thoroughly revised form.

Also, both groups have agreed to accept the other’s inspection results. This was a cause of great concern for factory owners, who have argued that duplicating the need for inspections would squander both time and money gratuitously.

As the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy quickly draws near, the race to criticize or defend efforts to bring Bangladesh into compliance has begun, inspiring both celebration and recrimination. Once a favorite object of scorn, the ABWS has made great strides lately in rehabilitating its reputation. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s apparel and export business trucks on, largely undisrupted by the political wrangling that encircles it.