Gap Joins Walmart, Refuses To Sign Protection Pact For Factory Workers They Employ

Bloodied T-shirts with the names of the dead from recent Bangladesh factory disasters were displayed at a recent Gap shareholder meeting in protest of the company's refusal to sign pact to protect garment factory workers. (Anirvan / Flickr / Creative Commons); image@InTheseTimes

Bloodied T-shirts with the names of the dead from recent Bangladesh factory disasters were displayed at a recent Gap shareholder meeting in protest of the company’s refusal to sign pact to protect garment factory workers. (Anirvan / Flickr / Creative Commons); image@InTheseTimes

I used to like Gap jeans; used to shop at their stores on a regular basis. Their advertising is charming and ubiquitous (who can resist those Baby Gap photographs?), their brand of simple, classic, American casuals is well known throughout the world. Good company, right?

You decide: Gap just joined the ranks of clothing retailers who refuse to sign the Joint Memorandum of Understanding on Fire Building and Safety, written in response to the horrifying Rana Plaza factory collapse on May 4th and the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in November 2012 (as well as other factory tragedies). Both these major events were in Dhaka, Bangladesh and together these tragedies killed almost 1,500 factory workers toiling for a wide variety of global companies in buildings that were poorly maintained and dangerously ignored.

But Gap, the largest retailer in the U.S. and second largest in the world, a company that employs thousands of workers in Third World countries (including Dhaka, Bangladesh) who earn the lowest minimum wage in the world at $37.00 a month, doesn’t want to sign that binding agreement. Guess who else doesn’t? Yep… Walmart. Good, old American Gap has aligned with one of the most thoughtless, dispassionate companies in the world, proving while its brand may be “for every generation,” it isn’t necessarily for the workers pounding out its product.

Leo Gerard, current president of the United Steel Workers, put aside his hard-hat to pick up a pen in response to this story. His piece, Blood On Gap Jeans published by the news site In These Times, took the manufacturing behemoth to task for their misguided alliance with Walmart, as well as their calculated justifications for their refusal to sign:

The horror of the Rana Plaza photos fresh in mind, the coalition succeeded in getting 38 retailers to sign the Joint Memorandum of Understanding on Fire and Building Safety.

But giants Gap and Walmart refused. They said they’d go it alone. In other words, don’t expect much from them. Gap, which owns the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy stores, promised $22 million in loans for repairs to the 78 Bangladeshi factories it uses. That is $22 million in loans – from a corporation that made $333 million in profits in the first three months of this year alone.

Gap objected to arbitration and legal liability in the Joint Memorandum. Gap suggested instead that the remedy for noncompliance be expulsion from the program.

What Gap is saying is this: We don’t really want to take responsibility. We want to be able to slink away if safety costs are high or if we disagree with an inspector’s report.

Gap contends it fears legal accountability… This is Gap saying, yeah, they buy garments from Bangladeshi vendors, but Gap is not responsible for the blood of crushed workers on the clothes. That’s like the guy who buys a watch off the arm of a street hustler then claims he’s not responsible for receiving stolen property because it was the vendor, not him, who beat and robbed the watchmaker.

Interestingly, another company that took some recent PR heat for the mangled comments of its CEO on the topic of who’s “thin and beautiful” enough to wear its clothes, Abercrombie & Fitch, had global perspective to sign the agreement, along with other American companies Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Izod [you can see the current list of signers here]. Kind of puts things in a different perspective.

As for the dastardly duo, Gap and Walmart, Gerard makes the point that while their offers to “go it alone” in contributing significant funds to the effort may appear generous, the issue is that it’s not binding, nor is it transparent. Given their own complicity in manufacturing product in these death-trap buildings with little protection for their ill-paid workers, what confidence does the global community have in their purported desire to make things right? As Gerard suggests, Gap could do an inspection, find a building in sub-par condition, but without some collaborative oversight, what assurances are there that they wouldn’t just dead-file that report and move on to another, hopefully better, factory, leaving workers in the inspected fire-trap still at peril?

The list of life-threatening conditions in these manufacturing plants are horrifying and even with the contributions and efforts of companies from around the world, workers are often left to fend for themselves in very precarious environments and situations. Instead of governments oppressing the organization of those workers demonstrating for better pay and safer working conditions, it should, as Gerard asserts, “be the opposite”:

A government should represent its people, not the interests of foreign apparel retailers. Until the Bangladeshi government gives workers the right to organize and collectively bargain for decent wages and health and safety improvements, the EU and United States should suspend its special trade status.

Bangladeshi, American and European workers are the same. We live and die together. When giant retailers shirk their responsibility to protect workers from unnecessary dangers, they are guilty of receiving bloody property.

Which brings us to the “bloody property” we are either willing or unwilling to put on our backs as consumers of merchandise made by those using – and abusing – impoverished workers desperate enough to suffer sometimes fatal consequences for a job. Consumer and human rights groups demonstrated at the Gap shareholders meeting last week and many are promoting the site United Students Against Sweatshops, the International Labor Rights Forum as an outlet for activism

Whatever you decide, and one must make decisions when it comes to this sort of thing, the easiest, most expeditious and, certainly, first step someone can make is simply to NOT PURCHASE the products of companies who do not represent the higher ideals of humanity. Say what you will about the “creepy” Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, that company willingly signed the Joint Memorandum of Understanding on Fire Building and Safety. I’m not suggesting you now patronize their stores, but I am suggesting you NOT patronize the stores of those who didn’t sign.

Walmart is a no brainer. Gap? That surprised me. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did. Seems it’s time to get those cool jeans and really cute baby clothes somewhere else. I understand Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have some very nice lines…



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