Retailers and human rights activists are frustrated by British fashion chain Primark's abrupt announcement that it would financially compensate workers and families affected by last week's garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.
Primark's Monday announcement seemed like a welcome, necessary response to the tragedy at Rana Plaza, an eight-story building housing five garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh. But other retailers who also used the factory, where nearly 400 workers have been proclaimed dead and another 800 to 900 are expected to be added to the death toll, expressed dismay at Primark's hasty announcement — and human rights activists echo their concerns.
In its statement, Primark called for solidarity amongst companies producing clothes at the factory: "We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance." On Tuesday, BuzzFeed Fashion asked a number of European brands with ties to Rana Plaza — including Matalan, Benetton, Children's Place, Carrefour, Mango, Bonmarché, and El Corte Ingles — if they would follow Primark's lead in compensating victims.
Several of these companies' representatives who did not want to be named questioned Primark's abrupt change in position, labeling it little more than a PR stunt. "We can't all just tie a pretty bow on some empty statement and call it a day," said a member of one retailer's public relations team. Other reps agreed that Primark spoke too soon, before sustainable procedures for the long-term support they are promising could be properly implemented. Reps for these companies expect to offer pledges of support similar to Primark's after conducting more research.
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed Fashion, British brand Bonmarché said it would review how and why the collapse occurred but revealed no plans to compensate victims until conducting further research. The statement read: "Our priority has always been to ensure our customers can have absolute confidence that the clothes we sell are produced without risk to those making them. Once we have all the necessary information in place, we will be taking the appropriate action in supporting the victims and families of this tragic event."
As of Tuesday afternoon, none of the other brands contacted by BuzzFeed Fashion provided official comment. The only other retailer making a pledge on par with Primark's is Canadian brand Joe Fresh. A statement on the homepage of joefresh.com — making Joe Fresh the only retailer involved so far to acknowledge the disaster on its homepage — mentions both involvement in rescue efforts and "[caring for] local families." The company clarified the latter phrase to Canadian current affairs magazine Macleans, promising "benefits now and in the future" for victims and their families.
A director of Primark's ethical trading division is currently working with aid groups in Dhaka. Primark said it would continue working with an NGO in the region to help victims, and that compensation packages would "include the provision of long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased."
Labour Behind the Label, a British nonprofit group that works to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, had been in communication with Primark since first reports of the collapse broke last Wednesday — but they didn't even expect Primark to announce plans to compensate victims so quickly.
Labour Behind the Label's workers' rights campaigner Anna McMullen said that labor groups will surely all welcome Primark's pledge and the precedent it sets. But she noted that the statement left too many questions unanswered: How and how much compensation will be dispersed? Who will receive it and on what grounds? Will all Plaza employees benefit from Primark's funds, McMullen asks, or just those working on Primark clothing? "It's not about food and helping people out of the wreckage, it's about the long-term. This is the beginning of a long process, and if Primark are in for the long haul, that's fantastic — but they need to commit properly," she said.
McMullen does see Primark's statement as a savvy PR move that will force other retailers to act quickly. Primark's quick announcement makes it look like one of the most conscientious retailers involved in the tragedy, which is both good and bad: good if competing retailers act similarly, but bad if more or most offer empty, rushed platitudes. She believes, as brands indicated to BuzzFeed Fashion, that other retailers will announce pledges of support and compensation packages for workers as the death toll rises.
But neither Primark nor Joe Fresh make any mention of their codes of conduct in their latest statements or offer specific examples of how workplace safety will improve. (In one earlier statement, a Primark spokesman talked of "improving structural surveys" and other audits without going into specifics.)
In the meantime, activists are focused on making sure the tragedy is top of mind for Western fast-fashion customers. London-based advocacy group War on Want, which focuses on sweatshop labor and exploitation of workers in developing countries, held a small protest outside Primark's London flagship over the weekend. Many shoppers "were not aware of the [full] story," said War on Want's senior campaigns officer Murray Worthy. "A lot of people were shocked to see the connection between what they'd seen on the TV and their local high street." Worthy believes this tragedy could prove "the tipping point" for fast-fashion consumers. "This just cannot continue. It must be the last industrial accident, it must be a line drawn in the sand."
Meanwhile, a Change.org campaign is receiving an overwhelming response. More than 65,000 people have signed the petition, a joint venture between Bangladesh's National Garment Worker Federation (NGWF) and the War on Want. In the petition, NGWF President Amirul Haque Amin asks fast-fashion retailers to "take responsibility for their actions by ensuring justice for the workers and taking action to ensure this never happens again."
Those who sign send the following message to fast-fashion chain CEOs.
Following Primark's announcement, activists noted that the latest tragedy could have been avoided if retailers had bothered to implement proper safety measures. After a fire at another factory in Dhaka killed more than 100 workers in November, consumers and the media rallied around concern over factory safety in Bangladesh — but proper actions were not taken to prevent another tragedy from occurring.
Liana Foxvog, an organizing director for the D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum, hopes the latest tragedy can provoke enough consumer response to get retailers to act. "Now I feel those concerns have reached a next level," said Foxvog, whose organization has 50,000 supporters on its email list. "My hope is that all of this consumer pressure — which is taking form through online petitions and protests in stores — that this will translate into brands finally accepting real responsibility and joining the legally binding factory safety agreement."
The Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which War on Want developed in close partnership with Bangladesh's National Garment Worker Federation (NGWF), is backed by influential groups like the International Labor Rights Forum. The binding charter could prove instrumental in preventing further tragedies through enforcing standards across construction, facilities, and worker rights. And it's necessary, said Amirul Haque Amin, because "multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system... But yet these [tragedies] keep happening."
So why haven't Western retailers adopted the Safety Agreement or a similar proposal? In short: money. In 2011, international retailers including Walmart, Gap, and H&M attended a meeting in Dhaka to discuss worker safety and the improvements necessary to bring factories in line with proposed regulations. The meeting's minutes show a Walmart director of ethical sourcing stating, "It would not be financially feasible for the brands to make such investments." (Walmart later stated these remarks had been taken out of context.)
"It's the responsibility of the people placing the orders to make sure factories they're dealing with meet certain compliance standards,'' says Brian Kaminer, a former head of quality assurance at Land's End, Tommy Hilfiger, and Nautica. Retailers need to create a set of standards then either set up offices near factories to conduct checks or contract independent quality assurance labs such as Bureau Veritas, Intertek, or SGS for certifications, said Kaminer, who consults with retailers on sourcing, product design and manufacturing.
"When these things come up, there's a lot of noise for a short period of time, but then people go back to doing what they've done before — this needs to be something that is always in the forefront," Kaminer said. "The responsibility lies in the people placing the orders because they're the people who can create change most easily, because they're doing it with the dollars they're placing there."
—Additional reporting by Sapna Maheshwari.