When we think of terrible labor standards in the 21st century economy, we may very well think of Wal-Mart and for good reason. But the real villain in the international clothing industry is Gap. That company has done more than any other to push back against any meaningful reform, including in the aftermath of the Bangladesh disaster.
Consumer and labor groups have focused more on persuading Gap rather than Walmart to join the Bangladesh factory safety plan. Gap has been the most vocal company in criticizing the plan, expressing concerns that overly litigious American lawyers could seize on the agreement to sue American companies on behalf of aggrieved factory workers in Bangladesh. Gap’s proposed changes would greatly limit any legal liability for any company that violated the plans.
In a statement, Gap said: “We’re pleased that an accord is within reach, and Gap Inc. is ready to sign on today with a modification to a single area — how disputes are resolved in the courts. This proposal is on the table right now with the parties involved. With this single change, this global, historic agreement can move forward with a group of all retailers, not just those based in Europe.”
Under Gap’s proposal, if a retailer is found to have violated the agreement, the only remedy would be public expulsion from the factory safety plan.
“The U.S. is quite litigious,” said Bill Chandler, a Gap spokesman. “We put forward specific proposals that we thought would bring other American retailers into the fold. We thought it would be a step forward and would turn it into a much more global agreement.”
The labor unions and advocacy groups that have negotiated with H&M; Inditex, the Spanish company that owns the Zara chain; and other companies that have signed the plan criticized Gap’s proposal to change the agreement. These groups say Gap’s vigorous push against the version of the plan has helped sway some other American companies not to sign.
“Gap Inc. is ready to sign on today with a modification to a single area — how disputes are resolved,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a group sponsored by 175 colleges and universities. “Gap’s demand is that the agreement be made unenforceable — and therefore meaningless. What Gap wants is the right to renege on its commitments when it wishes.”
This is not the first time Gap has acted to preserve the exploitative nature of the apparel industry. Gap has a long history of using child labor to make its clothing in nations ranging from Jordan to Bangladesh. It has used contractors that dump dyes into Lesotho rivers. It wants absolutely no enforceable standards and is the greatest defender of a system that just killed 900 Bangladeshis.
I think it is high time for an international boycott of Gap until it agrees to enforceable labor standards at its contractors, or at least signs on to the safety plan created by European companies in the wake of the Bangladesh factory collapse.