Are the factory owners and their current customers  alone responsible for compensation payments?

Are the factory owners and their current customers alone responsible for compensation payments?

As the focus in Bangladesh shifts to compensation payments for the victims and survivors of recent garment factory tragedies, an intriguing issue is coming to the fore: who, exactly, is culpable? While the factory owners and their current customers are obvious targets, what about retailers and brands who might have sourced there in the past? asks Petah Marian.

Culpability is proving particularly difficult to define in the case of the Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories and collapsed with the loss of more than 1,100 lives earlier this year.

While it is easy to point a figure at the factory owner who forced workers to return to an unsafe building, or the brands buying from the site at the time of its collapse - what about those companies who had already removed their business from the premises?

The pool of retailers that NGOs and labour rights groups are targeting to pay the US$74.6m compensation for Rana Plaza victims and their families is getting larger. 

For instance, Spanish retail giant Inditex, operator of the Zara fashion stores, stopped sourcing from Rana Plaza in December 2011 following breaches in its supplier code.

Yet it is one of the 20 brands singled out by campaigners for not attending a compensation meeting held last week in Geneva.

A spokesperson for the retailer said: "Inditex did not attend the compensation meeting concerning Tazreen and Rana Plaza, as it was not among the companies that were manufacturing in those factories."

But Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign told just-style it is impossible to take an "arbitrary timeline" outside of which a company is not responsible, as the root causes of the collapse were already there at the time.

While admitting that Inditex has not disclosed the exact reasons it withdrew from Rana Plaza, Zeldenrust adds that if it knew about the building's instability it is "even more responsible" because it may have known and not done anything about it.

And it seems to be for this reason the company is being asked to pay compensation to victims of a disaster in a factory that it has had no relationship with for almost a year and a half. 

NGOs and labour rights campaigners said that of the 29 brands invited to the compensation meetings, only nine attended.

Those that didn't attend included: Adler, Auchan, Benetton, C&A, Carrefour, Cato Corp, The Children's Place, Dressbarn, Essenza, FTA International, Gueldenpfennig, Iconix Brand, Inditex, JC Penney, Kids Fashion Group, LPP, Mango, Manifattura Corona, NKD, Premier Clothing, PWT Group, Texman and Walmart.

Yet many of these companies, Inditex included, are taking steps to improve safety in Bangladesh.

They have signed up to the Accord or Alliance initiatives to tackle for fire and building safety in the country and, as an Inditex spokesperson emphasised, where there have been tragedies in factories the Spanish retailer has sourced from, it has "always helped the victims in every way it could".

Biagio Chiarolanza, the CEO of Benetton - another brand that did not attend the meeting last week - said the retailer has been in talks to establish a multi-stakeholder framework to address the issue of compensation.

He added: "In the end, the majority of companies and several other industry participants felt that the meeting called for in Geneva would not do so, mainly due to lack of clarity around the objectives as well as the nearly complete lack of involvement allowed to several key stakeholders.

"As a result, we decided to focus our efforts and resources in working directly with those affected by the Rana Plaza disaster and their families so that we can provide them with concrete help while they need it the most.

"At the same time, we remain committed to playing a role in finding an industry-wide, multi-stakeholder approach to this issue - much like the Accord did for fire and safety."

Discussions continue
It emerged last week that the retailers involved in the compensation talks are working to agree a framework for long-term payment, and are to meet again in two weeks' time to consider their next steps.

"Compensation needs to be paid in-line with international standards," said Zeldenrust, explaining the need for a unified approach. 

"You can't pay some workers some money and others none." She explained there have been inconsistencies in how the money was distributed to victims, for instance prioritising payments to orphans, which has led to discrimination against workers that did not have children.

Primark, which was sourcing from the Rana Plaza building when it collapsed, said it has committed to paying further short-term aid to all workers and their families, including three months' salary.

But as negotiations continue, Primark and the campaigners remain concerned about the length of time it will take to reach an agreement.