November 18, 2014

Madeleine Albright’s Consulting Firm Behind Effort to Undercut Bangladesh Safety Standards

Richard Verma, a consultant to Wal-Mart and the Wal-Mart backed Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety
Richard Verma, a consultant to Wal-Mart and the Wal-Mart backed Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety

The tragic Dhaka garment factory disaster in Bangladesh last year placed international pressure on global retailers to take responsibility and force their suppliers to increase safety standards. Though many North American and European brands signed onto a fairly strong safety agreement known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, several companies with suppliers in Bangladesh refused, most notably, Wal-Mart and GAP.

Wal-Mart and GAP, rather than signing the Accord’s binding safety agreement, developed their own standard with fewer commitments and no legally binding promise to take financial responsibility for future disasters. While the Accord mandates that retailers help provide funds for safety upgrades at their Bangladesh-based suppliers in situations where factory owners can not afford to provide the repairs, the Wal-Mart-led plan calls for voluntary contributions to a low-interest loan program. And while the Accord was crafted through a multi-stakeholder coalition of workers, activists, and retailers, the Wal-Mart plan was led by retail executives. In fact, the rival plan was developed with help from Washington’s political elites.

Republic Report has learned that the Albright Stonebridge Group, a political consulting firm founded by Madeleine Albright, helped the Wal-Mart-led effort, known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Wal-Mart, Republic Report can also confirm, is a client of the Albright Stoneridge Group.

Ben Chang, a spokesperson for the Albright Stoneridge Group, e-mailed Republic Report to say that “the Alliance successfully conducted inspections of 587 factories from which its Members source.” Chang lauded the work of his group, claiming the “Alliance and its Member companies have agreed to pay workers who are laid off due to remediation in its factories with 50 percent pay for four months – the factory owners pay the other 50 percent of the worker’s salary. The Alliance has also trained over 1.1 million garment workers, managers, and security officers in Bangladesh on fire safety procedures over the past year, and is in the process to train more in the coming year.”

“Gap and Wal-Mart’s safety plan is a sham which won’t make factories safe and only serves to undermine the Bangladesh Safety Accord,” said Murray Worthy, an anti-sweatshop campaigner, who called the effort an “expensive P.R. stunt.” The A.F.L.-C.I.O. blasted Wal-Mart’s Alliance as “a weak and worthless plan that avoids enforceable commitments.”

As I reported last year for The Nation, Wal-Mart’s rival plan was sold to Washington elites through a slick marketing campaign launched at a Wal-Mart-funded think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center.

One of the former Albright Stoneridge Group consultants to serve as a “strategic advisor” to the Wal-Mart-backed Alliance was Richard Verma, a former U.S. State Department official and fellow at the Center for American Progress. In September, Verma was named as the U.S. Ambassador to India.

In April of 2013, Bangladesh’s garment industry was rocked by a garment factory building collapse that killed over 1,100 in Dhaka. The tragedy came only months after a fire that claimed the lives of more than 112 at a garment factory in Tazreen. Many other building collapses have occured throughout the years in Bangladesh’s troubled garment industry.

  • Marianne Scholte

    The Accord does NOT “mandate that retailers pay for safety upgrades at their Bangladesh-based suppliers.” Rob Wayss, the director of operations for the Accord in Bangladesh, clearly refuted this statement in a recent interview: As he says: “This provision does not mean that the brands are going to pay for everything. The expectation is that you as the factory owner or you as the building owner are going to pay to repair your building.”