Friday, May 31, 2013

BUILDING SAFETY | Bipartisan Policy Center Takes on Rana Plaza

Rana Plaza building collapse, Savar, Bangladesh
Today's news about Bangladesh came in three parts, as reported in The New York Times:
  • The front page (A1) story was about the chaos surrounding the identification of the dead at the Rana Plaza factory building in Savar, Bangladesh. 
  • Then there was a page B1 story by Ian Urbina, "Unions Seek to Revise Bangladesh Trade Status".
  • Finally, a page B6 story by Steve Greenhouse, "U.S. Retailers Announce New Factory Safety Plan".
Bangladeshi Government Inaction

The front-page story shows the shortcomings of the Bangladeshi government in dealing with the aftermath of the collapse, and helps explain why it happened, why laws relating to building construction, for example, were not enforced. This is not news to those who have some familiarity with the country, but is well worth highlighting to provide background to the public on where the problems and solutions lie in that country.

Bangladesh's Special Trade Status

The second story is about labor advocates' urging the U.S. Government to revoke the special trade status granted to Bangladesh, which makes possible the export of $4.5 billion of apparel and other goods to the United States. The groups cited in the story are the International Labor Rights Forum and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

The garment sector accounts for 70 percent of Bangladeshi exports and is the primary reason for its rapid growth in recent years. The industry employs four million workers out of a population of 150 million. Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world other than a city-state like Hong Kong.

A measure of Bangladesh's devastation by illness, natural disaster and accidents is the fact that only 4 percent of its population is over 65 - compared with 13 percent in the United States. The 9 percentage-point differential amounts to a missing elderly population of nearly 14 million people.  Labor advocates want to punish the Bangladeshi government for not enforcing labor laws better to protect the 4 million garment workers. U.S. Government officials argue, properly, that taking away the trade status removes its leverage over the Bangladeshi government as well as creating the likelihood of another failed state in a region of the world where that would create global security issues.

Bipartisan Policy Center Takes on Bangladesh Safety Issues

The third story by Steven Greenhouse was about the Bipartisan Policy Center's new involvement in the generating solutions to the lack of enforcement of Bangladeshi factory safety laws. The Washington-based Center will administer a new agreement between Wal-Mart, Gap, several other brands (Sears, JCPenney, and Target) and at least four industry organizations - the National Retail Federation, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Retail Council of Canada.

In terms of the potential for creating change, this story deserves better placement than it got. The initiative was immediately attacked as a "sham" by the Uni Global union and as lacking "real obligation" on the part of the brands by a labor advocacy group. However, the fact that the development and implementation of the agreement will be led by former Senators George J. Mitchell and Olympia J. Snowe deserved a more positive response. Both senators are from Maine; one is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Both are well-known and well-regarded for their diplomatic skills.

The new agreement parallels the Accord, which was pioneered by international unions and advocacy groups and after two years with little support is now supported by mostly European brands.

Some of my friends describe the Bipartisan Policy Center group as "complementary" because it is working on specific issues of concern to large U.S. brands whereas the Accord group was originated by labor unions and advocates and is acceptable so far primarily to European brands. (The implementation phase awaits conversion of the framework to an implementing institution.)

My Comment

The Ruggie Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (see John Gerard Ruggie, Just Business, Norton, 2013) put the responsibility for worker and workplace safety primarily on government. Unsafe buildings should not be permitted to be built or to remain open after they are found to be unsafe. Corrupt inspectors should have their licenses removed and prosecuted. This is how things work in New York City, and this is how they should work everywhere.

What campaigners are arguing is that the brands are responsible. What the brands have to do is act together to pressure governments in developing countries to enforce the laws they pass about worker safety.

That gets us to implementation and that gets us to NGOs and to trust. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are by definition neither governments nor businesses. The term NGO is used in the global context – within the United States the more common term is nonprofit.

When brands are bitten by campaigners, they turn to stakeholder engagement as a way of working on reducing risks to their reputations. In my experience, NGOs in the human rights arena fall broadly into three categories as defined by the NGO Monitor:

(1)Supporters of Local Development. The groups closest to the ground are NGOs that collect funds for a variety of development projects in different areas, and provide financial and technical support to smaller local NGOs. These groups often partner with global groups on implementation of programs.

(2)Nation- or Region-Focused. The second group is made up of nation- or region-specific NGOs. These regional NGOs may restrict their activities to the specific areas, conflicts or issues.

(3)Global. The third group consists of international bodies such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, whose operations are global.

Companies, campaigners, labor unions and government concerned with world-wide operations will find that global NGOs are efficient stakeholder allies. The local and regional/national NGOs tend to work together with global NGOs. The largest global NGOs in New York City are UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, and the Institute for International Education.

The global NGOs closest to business fall into three main categories:
  • Industry-oriented groups, representing the jewelry business, retailers or manufacturers. These are the primary NGOs initially recruited for the Bipartisan Policy Center initiative.
  • Campaigners, representing those outraged by an event or doggedly pursuing an objective such as freeing political prisoners – for example, No Dirty Gold, Clean Clothes Campaign, union-based groups, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, Transparency International, or the Maquila Solidarity Center. These groups may be driven by events or new information and understandably tend to attack the most recognizable brands regardless whether or not the brands were involved in the disaster or disgrace, or were leading the effort to find a solution. Brands that have been “bitten” by activists try to rebuild their reputation based on performance. They will  seek to engage either with campaigners or with implementing NGOs, or both.
  • Implementing groups, including training groups, and certification and accreditation bodies. These groups are focused on quietly seeking to improve conditions and generally seek to include activists, unions and industries among their stakeholders. Some are truly multi-stakeholder. Some have key representation missing, either because they didn't try to spread their net more widely in the first place or because polarization on an issue becomes so extreme that some groups do not want to cooperate with them. Examples: CERES, Fair Labor Association, ISEAL Alliance, SA 8000/Social Accountability International.
The biggest challenge for both the union-led Accord and the Bipartisan Policy Center group will be to line up governmental allies. The Accord group is planning on involving the ILO. Given the composition of its members, the group administered by the Bipartisan Policy Center is more likely to focus - at least initially - on the U.S. Government.