Has the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA) campaign struggled to make a mark? In his most recent Flanarant column, which was published on just-style on Friday (1 February), Mike Flanagan suggests that is the case. Campaigners, however, have hit back to say the article misrepresents the Agreement on several key points. We publish their comments below.

Mike Flanagan devoted his most recent column on just-style to two purposes:

  1. Attacking and misrepresenting a labour-supported fire safety agreement designed to put an end to the apparel factory fires that have been killing workers in Bangladesh by the dozens; and
  2. Praising the policies of Walmart and the other major retailers that have failed for years to take any meaningful action to avert this needless destruction.

Flanagan doesn't like the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA) and, since he can't make a compelling argument against it on the merits, he just makes stuff up. Flanagan tells his readers the programme has a five-year timeframe and its impact will therefore be far too slow. In fact, the agreement has a two-year timeframe and, once implemented, factory inspections and safety renovations will begin in a matter of months.

Flanagan says no company has signed the agreement and that only one has "said it will sign." In fact, two major corporations have signed the agreement, PVH Corp (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and the German retailer Tchibo. These aren't just promises from these companies, but binding, enforceable commitments.

And here's Flanagan on the issue of costs: "[I]ts advocates claimed it wouldn't cost much. Somehow the idea got about that the cost to an individual company would be capped at $500,000 a year - but the activists have since added that they estimate it'll cost $3bn, over five years, to make Bangladesh factories safe."

Flanagan is confusing two separate issues. $500,000 is the cost per year to participating companies to fund the administrative aspects of the programme (inspections, training, etc). No one ever suggested that this administrative fee would be the total cost of the programme.

Indeed, the whole premise of the agreement is that most factories will need major repairs and renovations, and that brands and retailers must assume the financial burden together with the factories because many individual factories cannot afford it.

We estimate the total cost to upgrade the entire factory base in Bangladesh - more than 5,000 facilities - to be $3bn. This is a substantial sum, but it is affordable to the Western brands and retailers, which collectively purchase nearly $20bn worth of apparel a year from Bangladesh, at factory price. Flanagan's claim that advocates underestimated the costs and later revised them is fiction.

Flanagan also misrepresents the position of Industriall, the global union federation, claiming it does not support the agreement - a bizarre assertion, considering the union is a signatory to the agreement.

His evidence for his version of Industriall's position: the union did not mention the agreement in one of its recent public statements. Flanagan also ignores the fact that the agreement enjoys broad support in the labour movement in Bangladesh: 12 Bangladeshi apparel unions are also signatories.

The real basis of Flanagan's opposition to the BFBSA is clear: he doesn't like the agreement because Walmart and some other major retailers don't like the agreement. He quotes Walmart, Gap and H&M defending their refusal to sign up, and says: "BFBSA was told in April 2011 that its programme wouldn't fly..."

Flanagan is referring to Walmart's now infamous statement at an April 2011 meeting in Dhaka that it would cost a lot of money to make factories in Bangladesh safe and that Walmart and other retailers were not going to pay for it.

According to Flanagan, advocates should have responded to Walmart's opposition to the agreement by immediately dropping it. In Flanagan's world view, when a major corporation with an abysmal record on ethics and human rights doesn't like a labour rights initiative, it is the initiative, not the corporation, that needs to change.

He then goes on to praise promises of reform from Walmart, Gap and others and to state as fact that these promises will immediately translate into vast improvements in safety practices in Bangladesh and a swift end to the fires.

He says: "Brands, factories and the Bangladesh government will start work on action plans to eliminate unsafe factories, suppliers using them and disgraceful practices like locking security gates, and to ensure factory upgrading.

"They'll improve the ability of workers and managers to react effectively to fires. Unions will start being recognised. The likelihood is that there won't be any more deaths in Bangladesh factories making for Walmart once this process is worked through - which is likely to be about mid-2013..."

Brands, factories and the Bangladesh government have been promising to eliminate unsafe factories and unsafe practices for years. No meaningful action has ever been taken. When a factory burns and workers die, similar promises are reiterated, with a few rhetorical enhancements, and the industry returns to business as usual, until the next conflagration.

This is a well-established pattern, readily visible to all serious observers. (To cite only one of numerous examples, the industry in Bangladesh announced a supposedly robust programme in 2008 to crack down on factories that lock their gates, with fines and penalties for violators. This was supposed to put an end to the problem. Little was heard of this programme subsequent to its announcement. As has been widely reported, locked gates were a factor in every one of the recent deadly fires.)

There is no reason to believe that the recent round of promises will be different from any that came before - until and unless the brands and retailers can be compelled to translate those promises into binding enforceable commitments, which is the purpose of the BFBSA.

What is the basis of Flanagan's stated belief that the safety of workers in Bangladesh is virtually guaranteed now that Walmart has announced a new CSR programme? He chatted with industry executives: "Everyone I know in this industry has been horrified at the fires over the past four months and wanted to do something."

If it weren't for the urgency of the issue, Flanagan's credulousness would be amusing. Under the circumstances, it's appalling. Unsurprisingly, other observers don't share his faith in Walmart's good intentions.

Here is David Birnbaum, in a just-style commentary on 21 January: "From Walmart's point of view, the death of 112 workers, while undoubtedly regrettable, was cost effective. The assumption is that eventually things will settle down, the media will find someone else to pick on, and Walmart will return to business as usual...Tazreen was not a one-off event. Given the state of Bangladesh factories, death by factory fire is inevitable. There will be other Tazreen disasters."

According to the editors of The New York Times (31 January), Walmart's recent promises fall far short of a credible programme. Says the Times: "Walmart needs to do much more...Walmart and other Western companies have tried voluntary auditing and inspections to keep vendors honest about workplace conditions. But recent fires in Bangladesh, including one last weekend that killed seven women, show that this approach is not working. What's needed is an independent and robust inspection system that is legally enforceable and run by safety professionals."

The Times has endorsed the BFBSA. As it explains, more industry-led auditing, which is what Walmart and Gap have proposed, will not put an end to the deadly fires in Bangladesh. We need mandatory inspections conducted by qualified fire safety experts, with the results made public, mandatory renovations and repairs paid for by the brands and retailers, and a central role for workers and worker organisations in safety efforts.

This is the what the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement will provide.

Scott Nova, Worker Rights Consortium
Ineke Zeldenrust, Clean Clothes Campaign