Why Students Around the World Are Protesting the Gap

On Saturday, protesters in over 35 cities across the world demonstrated at Gap and Walmart stores as part of an International Day of Action to End Deathtraps to demand the companies abandon a fake, non-binding safety program and join the legally-enforceable Bangladesh Safety Accord, an agreement signed by over 50 other brands and retailers, including H&M, PVH, and Abercrombie & Fitch.

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) headed up the Day of Action, joined by United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, International Labor Rights Forum, and other unions and community groups. Bangladeshi workers and their unions also held a demonstration at the site of the Rana Plaza collapse and a press conference. These actions occurred just days after the U.S. suspended preferential trade benefits for Bangladesh in response to deteriorating labor conditions in the country.

“We’re taking action to demand that the Gap and Walmart sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, a legally-binding agreement with labor unions to transform factories from deathtraps to safe workplaces, impacting millions of workers who risk their lives every day to produce Gap and Walmart garments,” said Garrett Strain, International Campaigns Coordinator with United Students Against Sweatshops. “These companies should stop playing games with workers’ lives, before it’s too late.”

Despite calls to participate in a labor-backed plan to address the problems in Bangladesh’s garment industry, the Gap and Walmart have joined forces in recent weeks to pursue their own non-binding agreement that excludes workers and their unions. The Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor monitoring organization, has denounced the Gap and Walmart's alternative as a cop-out that does nothing to protect workers.

The Bangladesh Safety Accord requires independent inspections by trained fire safety experts, mandatory repairs and renovations financed by the brands, and a central role for workers and unions. While Gap and Walmart have balked at the financial costs of the agreement, the Worker Rights Consortium estimates that the costs of factory renovations for Walmart would be just two-tenths of 1% of the company’s profit last year, and just 1% of the dividends paid out last year to the Walton family heirs, and for Gap, the costs represent, at most, just 0.8% of Gap’s profits last year, and just 1.5% of the net wealth of Gap Co-founder Doris Fisher.

“Tragedies such as the Rana Plaza building collapse and the Tarzeen Fashion fire that have killed and maimed thousands of Bangladeshi workers must never again be allowed to happen,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “Gap, Wal-Mart and other U.S. retailers must sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which has been negotiated between the global trade union movement and more than 50 apparel brands. We can’t accept sham agreements that are not enforceable and in which workers have no voice.” 

“We have reached the tipping point of deaths due to factories that have turned into literal deathtraps,” said Mary Kay Henry, SEIU International President. “This moment requires the apparel industry to take responsibility for the safety of workers and the buildings in which they work by signing the Safety Accord. Together with our affiliate, Workers United, we join a broad coalition of labor, student, and community groups on June 29 as part of the International Day of Action to End Deathtraps. It is time for America’s largest retailers to show where their commitment lies — in profits at the expense of lives, or in producing garments we can all wear with pride.”