A history of negligence: How Gap and other major brands failed to draw lessons from the That’s It Sportswear factory fire
The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse shocked and captivated the world. But outside of Bangladesh, fewer remember the trail of mass-casualty factory disasters that preceded it. Eleven years ago today, 29 garment workers lost their lives when a fire broke out in the That's It Sportswear garment factory, where they made clothes for major American brands. On this day, our thoughts are with all families affected by this fire and our aim is to ensure that incidents like this can never happen again.
Brands’ own monitoring failed workers
The factory where workers sewed clothes for well-known brands and retailers, including JC Penney, VF Corporation, Gap, PVH (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein), Abercrombie & Fitch, Carter’s, Kohl’s and Target USA, was an incredibly dangerous place to work. Substandard electrics made the building prone to fires. Locked emergency exits meant nobody could escape when one broke out. The factory was operating illegally on the upper floors where the fire started.
A string of deadly collapses and fires in the decades before and a swelling call for factory safety from workers and activists should have been enough. The ways brands chose to respond after the That’s It Sportswear tragedy has shaped their workers’ safety to this day.
Supply chain monitoring by some of the world’s most well-known and powerful brands, which routinely sent commercial auditors to the factory, failed to fix any of these issues and prevent this fire and its deadly outcome. It’s not that they did not know what they were looking for. A string of deadly collapses and fires in the decades before and a swelling call for factory safety from workers and activists should have been enough. The ways brands chose to respond after the That’s It Sportswear tragedy has shaped their workers’ safety to this day.
Lesson learned: Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein (PVH)
Tommy Hilfiger’s parent company, PVH, concluded that a proposal put on the table by unions and labour rights organisations was the way forward after the tragedy. It entered conversations with global union representatives and labour rights organisations, like the Clean Clothes Campaign, about a binding programme to address safety in a transparent and credible way in Bangladesh. In March 2012, PVH signed an agreement with unions that would have entered into force as soon as four brands signed on. Tchibo became the second signatory several months later. But even though the deadly Tazreen fire in November 2012 once more highlighted the need for a credible safety system, no other brands joined.
More than 200 brands signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to make factories safer for over two million workers. No factory fires or collapses causing mass casualties have since happened in Accord-covered factories, and its tenure has been extended twice.
The eventual turning point would be the Rana Plaza collapse of 24 April 2013. In the face of over 1,100 deaths, many brands felt they could no longer ignore the call for a binding safety agreement. More than 200 brands signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to make factories safer for over two million workers. No factory fires or collapses causing mass casualties have since happened in Accord-covered factories, and its tenure has been extended twice.
Corporate interests over safety: Gap, JC Penney, VF Corporation, Carter’s, Kohl’s, Target
Unlike PVH, Gap and other brands chose to stick with the same self-regulatory approach that failed the workers at That’s It Sportswear, and two decades of workers before them. Gap in 2012 announced it would not sign the same binding agreement as PVH, despite participating in similar talks. Instead it announced that it would stick to its own factory monitoring programme, with no transparency or binding commitment of any kind and without the same union participation or financial guarantees that the agreement just signed by PVH provided for.
When after the Rana Plaza collapse other brands concluded there was no way around the signing of the binding safety agreement as tabled by unions and labour rights organisations, Gap, VF Corporation and other major companies decided on their own path. Despite their first-hand experience with death trap factories in Bangladesh and the failure of corporate auditing systems, six of the That’s It Sportswear buyers refused to join the Accord and set up their own alternative instead. One of the six, JC Penney, went on to be implicated in the Rana Plaza collapse. But even that did not provide enough motivation to follow the unions’ lead towards safety through the Accord. By creating a weak, unenforceable alternative to the worker-driven Accord, these companies avoided the same level of transparency, accountability and cooperation with unions, and continued to put their workers in danger.
Eleven years on, where are we?
Over a decade after the That’s It Sportswear fire, the garment industry has become much safer, thanks to the Accord’s binding and transparent systems to inspect and fix factories. In its third iteration, the Accord has been signed by over 150 companies from all over Europe (H&M, Inditex, Primark), North America (American Eagle Outfitter, Loblaw), and Asia (Uniqlo), and the sign-on process is still ongoing. The Accord has been renamed as the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry and it aims to expand to at least one other country in the next two years. With the broadening of its mandate beyond fire and building safety issues, the Accord also responds to changing health and safety needs during this global pandemic. It’s time for those brands which have been brutally and repeatedly confronted with the consequences of their negligence to finally take responsibility for the safety of the workers in their supply chain by signing the International Accord.
Sarah Newell, Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network
Christie Miedema, Clean Clothes Campaign