07/10/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

A Shared Responsibility: North American Alliance of Retailers and Brands Reach Agreement on a Bangladesh Worker Safety Program

By Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and Former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe

Bangladesh and the international firms that buy its textiles are at a crossroads. The country has rapidly become one of the most important producers of clothing for the world -- a $20-billion-a year business that provides essential jobs for more than 4.5 million Bangladeshis and accounts for more than 80 percent of the country's global exports. Yet these jobs have come at an intolerable cost, highlighted by the horrific scenes of the Rana Plaza building collapse and a series of tragic factory fires that have claimed thousands of lives. The global community, and the many interested stakeholders, must now unite in shared responsibility. Action currently underway has established critical momentum that must be sustained.

No single response can solve the extremely complex problems facing Bangladesh and its garment factories. Rather, solutions require collaboration among all stakeholders: the Bangladesh government, the U.S. and other foreign governments, retailers and brands, factory owners, workers, buyers in North America and Europe, members of civil society, and organized labor.

Numerous initiatives already on the table have many common elements, and can serve as the basis for a united approach to forging change, as all share the ultimate goal of protecting Bangladeshi workers. But the Government of Bangladesh and all stakeholders must work together to adopt strong, independently evaluated and enforced safety standards to prevent a recurrence of the terrible events of the recent past.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, with which each of us is involved, has been convening a group of leading North American retailers and brands to discuss a new path forward to make material improvements in fire and safety regulations within the garment factories of Bangladesh. We agreed to co-chair the proceedings, acting as independent facilitators, in response to retailers' requests for a credible and responsible forum. The goal of these meetings was for retailers to agree upon and establish a framework to effectively address worker safety issues in Bangladesh, built upon extensive efforts that many retailers were already undertaking.

Major North American brands are involved in the process: Canadian Tire Corporation Limited; Carter's Inc.; the Children's Place Retail Stores Inc.; Gap Inc.; The Hudson's Bay Company; Innovative Fashion Group; J.C. Penney Company Inc.; The Jones Group Inc.; Kohl's Department Stores; L. L. Bean Inc.; Macy's Inc.; Nordstrom Inc.; Public Clothing Company; Sears Holdings Corporation; Target Corporation; VF Corporation; and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. They are joined by the trade associations who represent them, including American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA); National Retail Federation (NRF); Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA); United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA); Retail Council of Canada (RCC) and the Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF). Collectively, these companies and brands represent over 90 worker of U.S. imports of RMG from Bangladesh.

The process also involved input from a spectrum of outside experts including government officials from the U.S. and Bangladesh, worker rights organizations and the safety industry, who provided written and verbal testimony. The group proceeded with a firm understanding that any truly effective solution must be developed and implemented with a strict pledge to transparency and accountability. The resulting agreement and program establish a clear path forward that includes specific and measurable actions across the areas essential to improving factory safety.

Today, The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (The Alliance) is publicly releasing its action plan. It has broad participation from North American retail companies. This initiative complements the previously announced Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and represents a substantial and important consensus among the companies that buy most of Bangladesh's garments. To that end, the members of the Alliance are making a five-year commitment, which involves initial direct funding of $42 million and growing. Alliance members are also providing at least $100 million in access to low-cost capital funding for factory improvements. Of critical importance, because of the urgent need for inspections and safety training, the Alliance is committing to inspect all of the factories in which they do business and train all of their workers in Bangladesh within one year.

As a single, unified program, it has the potential to achieve urgently required change. The key elements of the plan include:

· Training, educating and empowering workers, supervisors and management in the factories;

· Working with the Bangladeshi government and other interested stakeholders to develop and implement a common standard for assessing factory fire and building safety;

· Expanding fire and safety programs of inspections and remediation;

· Sharing information on training, current and future fire and building safety inspections and remediation actions;

· The creation of sustainable funding mechanisms to meet these objectives;

· Incorporating independent mechanisms for transparency and third party verification so the public will be able to determine if the program is working; and

· Establishing a capital fund that will provide low cost loans to expedite required factory remediation.

Governments, also, have a duty to protect their workers. As the United States and European Union purchasers of Bangladesh's garments agree on further actions to enhance worker safety, the government of Bangladesh must intensify enforcement. While major international brands can undertake their own factory inspections, there is also no substitute for a government that steps in to protect its workers across the board, in all its factories and workplaces.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety's agreement and action plan represent important steps in advancing the global effort to protect all those working in Bangladeshi garment factories through swift, specific, and measurable steps. However, achieving the ultimate goal will require building a broad, sustainable safety infrastructure and safety culture across all Bangladeshi garment factories. Now is the time for increased collaboration between The Alliance, the European Accord on Fire and Building Safety, governments, and other stakeholders focused on worker safety, including global labor groups and NGOs.

The stage is set for the ongoing, collaborative engagement and responsibility that will deliver safer garment factories in Bangladesh for many years to come. Like people everywhere, the workers of Bangladesh need jobs and a safe place to work. The members of the Alliance want to help make that happen.

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell is Co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and Former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe is a BPC Senior Fellow