Little Rock Walt Disney licenses $40 billion worth of products with only 1% of such goods manufactured in Bangladesh, but in the wake of the garment factory collapse killing over 400 workers they have announced that they will transition out of the country within the next year. They also indicated they would pull out of Pakistan, Ecuador, and several other countries. Other companies continue to spin their public relations departments with supposed meetings with each other and the government about how to improve conditions, mostly with fairly empty gestures like the Walmart announcement that it will offer fire safety training for managers. Most companies have not responded with the financial commitments or reforms that would create real change or security for workers.
Walt Disney significantly said that it would only license in countries where the countries were willing to agree to a very important quid pro quo of coming under inspection through a program called “Better Work.” Better Work is a joint program of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation. Better Work is not run by any of the nonprofit monitoring and corporate social responsibility groups who are financed by the companies themselves and in one disaster after another have proven unable to deal with the scale of exploitation involved in this industry in so many locations. Better Work involves all parties in some advisory way, but is funded largely by government aid programs in the United States, Australia and elsewhere, so they can be truly independent.
Importantly they also put worker safety first and only work with companies and in countries where there is a commitment to the ILO principles as a condition of their inspections, including the right to organize unions and pay fair wages. Pope Francis was pointed in characterizing the $40 monthly wage of for Bangladeshi workers as “slave labor,” which also gives hope that some of the cover-up might be coming to an end. Currently, Better Work is engaged in Indonesia, Vietnam, Haiti, Jordan, Lesotho, and Nicaragua, and Walt Disney is saying that if Bangladesh and its imitators are willing to agree to fuller inspections and the principles articulated by Better Work, then they would continue to license there.
Reading the Better Work website is encouraging as well because there is a requirement for intensive direct training of monitors and the insistence on anti-corruption guarantees for its direct hires, like the fact that no inspector can visit the same factory twice. Many may remember in the tragic fire last year certified by Social Accountability International the monitors were all subcontracted from other firms and there was suspicion that many may have also been bribed.
All of this is half-stepping, but at least Walt Disney is half-stepping in the right direction by saying “either get right, or it’s over, we’re out.”