Amazon Joins Worker Safety Program. But Is It Enough?

The Everything Store has "officially" signed up to the LABS Initiative, which labor campaigners have criticized for its non-legally binding nature. Read More...

Amazon has signed onto an initiative to improve worker safety, but labor campaigners are far from satisfied.

Dutch advocacy group IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative revealed last week that the Everything Store has “officially” joined its Life and Building Safety (LABS) Initiative, a “coherent and consistent” framework for monitoring apparel and footwear factories for fire, electrical and building safety issues much like the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, except that it’s non-legally binding and doesn’t have union participation.

The LABS Initiative will “work closely” with Amazon apparel suppliers in Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, where it already runs safety assessments and training programs. IDH hailed the e-tail Goliath’s decision to collaborate as a demonstration of its commitment to promoting safety standards and driving responsible and sustainable business practices—issues that have come under intense scrutiny in recent years from activist campaigns such as “Make Amazon Pay” and accusations of unsafe warehouse conditions.

“Realizing safe, equitable, fair and sustainable supply chains has been a longstanding priority for Amazon across all our businesses,” Leigh Anne DeWine, director of social responsibility at Amazon, said in a statement. “Recognizing our responsibility to uphold safe working environments, we are pleased to join the LABS Initiative. This collaborative initiative will strengthen our efforts to enhance building and fire safety and promote worker well-being. We remain committed to continually improving working conditions.”

But two of the world’s largest union federations—IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union—have long urged Amazon to add its name to the Accord, which grew out of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh and the 1,134 garment worker deaths that followed. They say that voluntary measures have done little to improve workers’ lives and that brands and retailers need to put some financial and legal skin in the game to hold themselves accountable in a way any number of codes of conduct cannot.

Related Stories

In a letter to Amazon CEO Andrew Jassy in April, Christy Hoffman and Atle Høie, the general secretaries of UNI and IndustriALL, respectively, pointed out that 30 out of 33 factories that the Whole Foods owner uses in Bangladesh and Pakistan that are covered by the “rigorous safety demands and worker rights” required by the Accord, which operates in the two countries.

“Amazon is therefore free-riding off the back of the Accord thanks to brands that are prepared to take responsibility for the health and safety of the workers in their supply chain,” they said of the agreement’s 220 signatories, which include predominantly Europe-based high rollers such as Adidas, H&M Group and Zara owner Inditex and a sprinkling of North American brands like American Eagle Outfitters and Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp.

Amazon didn’t sign up with the then-Bangladesh Accord at the time but it also didn’t enroll in the less punitive Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that was formed in the disaster’s aftermath by mostly U.S. brands, among them Gap Inc. and Walmart. Today, however, the e-commerce juggernaut works with Nirapon, which succeeded the Alliance in 2018 and is down to two full-time employees who use “education and capacity building—not enforcement” to make safety “inherent” to factories in Bangladesh. Together with Amader Kotha, a workers’ voice platform in Bangladesh, it also established an independent worker helpline accessible to its supply chain workers.

Comparing the impact of the Accord versus the LABS Initiative isn’t quite apples to apples. The Accord doesn’t have country programs in Cambodia, India, Indonesia or Vietnam, and the LABS Initiative doesn’t have a presence in Bangladesh or Pakistan. Membership in one, in other words, doesn’t preclude participation in the other. Also worth noting: Any coverage applies only to Amazon’s private labels, which make up 1 percent of its retail sales, not the independent sellers that hawk their wares on its third-party marketplace.

Since 2013, the Accord has resulted in more than 56,000 inspections and resolved over 140,000 safety issues at 2,400-plus factories for an aggregate remediation rate of 93 percent. The LABS Initiative, which started six years later, has onboarded nearly 540 factories and assessed 515 of them. By December 2023, according to its most recent annual report, the program had fixed 9,354 fire, electrical and safety issues for an overall remediation rate of 71 percent.

For Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade union and labor organizations, the difference between the two could not be more stark. She said that the LABS Initiative continues to shut out workers’ representatives from any meaningful participation while leaving it entirely to the participating brands to decide if and how they should support remediation.

“There is no requirement to support [any] financing of remediation, no requirement to work together with other participating brands sourcing from the same factory, and no requirement to take any action if a factory does not implement the remedial actions,” she said. “LABS’ so-called ‘enforcement’ consists of ranking and a warning letter with no business consequence. This is the exact same voluntary auditing model that has cost countless workers their lives and health.”

Joris Oldenziel, the Accord’s executive director, for one, said that he would welcome Amazon into the fold. It’s the Accord’s key principles—equal decision-making power between brands and unions, brand accountability through a legally binding dispute resolution process, commitments from brands to ensure that remediation is financially feasible, an escalation protocol that incentivizes factories to remediate, and so on—that have made it a success story.

“Should Amazon wish to extend its commitments to health and safety to their garment and textile supply chains in Bangladesh and/or Pakistan, we encourage them to join the collective effort of more than 220 global brands and retailers that have signed the International Accord to date,” he said.

Last April, several civil society organizations filed a complaint against Amazon, along with Ikea and Tom Tailor, for what they described as a “failure” of corporate due diligence under Germany’s Supply Chain Act, which requires businesses of a certain size to identify, address and mitigate social and environmental abuses within their supply chains. Among the companies’ faults, they said, was their failure to sign the Accord, which could have provided them with an “effective mechanism for improving workplace safety.”

In a statement, Pramit Chanda, global director of textile and manufacturing at IDH and spokesperson for the LABS Initiative, was sanguine about Amazon’s addition.

“As advocates for safe working environments and sustainability across the supply chain, we are delighted to welcome Amazon into the LABS Initiative,” he said. “Together, we look forward to working collaboratively to ensure the well-being of workers and to contribute to responsible sourcing practices.”

Read More

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment