Target Corp. said Monday that it has joined a group of national retailers and former U.S. senators to address labor issues in Bangladesh.
The Minneapolis-based retailer has been “actively engaged” with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, spokeswoman Jessica Deede said. The alliance, led by Wal-Mart, Gap, and former senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe, will focus on improving working conditions in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
The group will hold a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss its proposals. Target and the alliance both declined to comment on specifics, but the group reportedly will announce a $50 million fund to help boost safety for garment workers in Bangladesh, which is the world’s second-largest garment manufacturer after China.
A garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed in April, killing over 1,000 people. The accident highlighted the plight of workers in the country, who often work for low wages in poorly designed buildings.
Labor and activist groups have criticized retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and Sears for not joining the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which would impose legally binding requirements on retailers. Over 70 global retailers, including H&M in Sweden and Loblaws in Canada, have already signed on to the accord.
“What they are doing is distracting people from what workers need to ensure safe working conditions,” said Liana Foxvog, a spokeswoman for the International Labor Rights Forum. The alliance “is really a face-lift of corporate responsibility programs that have existed for decades. We’ve already seen the results of those programs.”
Retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have resisted legal requirements for safety, preferring to pursue voluntary agreements. Target relies on its own group of auditors to monitor suppliers. In recent years, Target said it has reduced by half the number of factories it uses in Bangladesh to consolidate “business with factories that have committed to better safety standards.”
But despite these efforts, accidents like the building collapse and recent fires continue to plague Bangladesh’s garment industry. That’s why any effort to improve working conditions, like the Wal-Mart-led alliance, will fall short unless retailers hold themselves to binding legal agreements, Foxvog said.
Target, in particular, has taken a deliberate, low-key approach to the debate, said Amy Koo, an analyst with Kantar Retail consulting group in Boston. The company probably sees little benefit in publicizing its role in the issue, she said.
“They think, ‘If we don’t talk about it, perhaps we can lessen the impact,’ ” Koo said.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has taken a lead role in the alliance because of its sizable operations in Bangladesh, analysts say. Target also does a lot of business in the country. According to company figures, Target directly imports 30 percent of its products overseas made at roughly 3,400 factories, including 169 plants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey.