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Gap slammed for refusal to sign global factory safety pact

Last month, international garment industry giant Gap, which reported $15.7 billion in sales in 2012, received an award as "one of America's most community minded companies," but not everyone agrees the retailer is a paragon of corporate social responsibility.

In early January, Gap was nominated in The Public Eye's online vote of companies with the most "dismal" social and environmental records worldwide. The retailer was nominated for its refusal to sign a globally binding agreement that would improve factory safety for garment workers in Bangladesh, known as the Fire and Building Safety Accord. "Instead, [Gap] is actively undermining serious reform by promoting a non-binding corporate controlled program," reads The Public Eye website.

The Public Eye, self-described as a watchdog of irresponsible business practices, is sponsored by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration, a Swiss nongovernmental organization dedicated to "fair globalization." As of Jan. 15, Gap ranked fourth in its "People's Choice" award for corporate bad behaviour. It had garnered over 27,000 public votes and ranked behind Russian energy giant Gazprom, the current frontrunner for the dubious honour, at just over 64,000 votes.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza factory fire in Bangladesh last year, a tragedy that killed over 1,100 garment workers, Gap, like other retailers that source cheap garments in the South Asian country, has been under increasing pressure to endorse the factory safety accord, which is supported by human rights organizations and trade unions.

Unlike the over 100 international firms (primarily European, but including the Canadian retailer Loblaw) that have joined the accord, Gap has chosen to remain outside it and to collaborate with Walmart and 24 other large apparel importers in forming an alternative organization, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

The alliance has been criticized by pro-labour and rights groups as far weaker than the accord, lacking both in accountability and in openness to worker participation.

Gap did not respond to requests for comments on the nomination, but on its website a press release states:

"A primary goal of the Alliance is the engagement of and partnership with the Bangladeshi government, as well as with the factory owners, non-governmental organizations, labor and civil society to ensure that there is shared accountability among all parties. Along with other Alliance members and global retailers, we share a firm commitment to improving conditions for workers in Bangladeshi garment factories, but we also are not unrealistic about what it will take to make real and sustainable progress."

In October last year, Gap was one of six garment retailers named as customers of the Aswad Knit Composite factory in Bangladesh, where 10 workers died and over 50 were injured in a fire reportedly made worse by malfunctioning fire extinguishers.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net.


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