Gap, Inc., the $6 billion retailer with millions of Millennials for customers, has some ground to make up. Coming under fire last year for their controversial response to the April 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in which 1,132 garment workers died and another 2,500 were seriously injured, Gap Inc. is looking for a progressive solution to bettering conditions for factory workers in production countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Cambodia. This iconic American company may have found its solution in P.A.C.E., the Gap Foundation’s program to empower female factory workers (who make up 80% of factory workers) and to give them education and training to advance their careers – and their lives.

Gap was one of several American countries to refuse to agree to an agreement after the tragedy at Rana Plaza that was designed to improve safety conditions in the factories. Target, Wal Mart, and Macy’s were a few others who claimed that the agreement was legally binding in the way that it handled court disputes, and therefore refused to sign without amendments. This decision was contested, because although Gap garments were not found in connection with the Rana Plaza factory collapse, Gap garments were found in a factory that caught fire just two years ago.

Bana Plaza factory after collapse in April 2013. Gap came under fire for not signing the European agreement which set high legal standards for factory owners in Bangladesh.

This summer, 17 major North American retailers that refused to sign the European agreement immediately following Rana Plaza drew up their own plan that commits $42 million for worker safety. This includes inspections and anonymous reporting hot line, as well as $100 million in loans for factory owners to correct safety problems. The plan is still not widely praised, however, because it lacks legally binding commitments to pay for those improvements. In short, nothing is forcing these factory owners to better their factories.

According to the New York Times, “Under the effort announced on Wednesday, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the participating companies will contribute money — from a modest amount up to $1 million a year, depending on the level of business each does in Bangladesh. This would create a fund of $42 million during the five years of the plan.” The plan also calls for retailers to inspect Bangladeshi factories used by North American retailers and then to develop plans to fix any substantial safety problems found.

Gap’s secret weapon is receiving less press: its program, called P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement) was founded in 2007 in partnership with several health and women’s organizations in an effort to empower women to advance their careers and, in doing so, to better the factories and help them to run the PACE program themselves.

Gap Foundation’s P.A.C.E. program seeks to empower female factory workers through education and career training.

“P.A.C.E. takes into consideration both the needs of the female garment workers and the business needs of the factories. The goal is to create a sustainable model where factory personnel are trained to implement the program on their own. The result is a best-in-class program that simultaneously benefits the woman, her community, and the factory,” reads a statement on the P.A.C.E. website.

The program boasts of 17,000 participants, a presence in 7 countries, and 65-80 hours that each P.A.C.E. recipient receives in education and training. It also has received positive ratings from participants from research done by the International Center for Research on Women. The stats reported were as follows:

  • Women reporting that they had better workplace relationships and communications skills increased by at least 36%.
  • Women reporting a greater belief in self and their own abilities increased by 32%.
  • Women reporting that they are saving regularly and at a greater rate increased by 69% in India and 35% in Cambodia. (according to the P.A.C.E. website)

What does this say for the quality of factory life and the lack of a strong stance by Gap Inc (with legal reprocussions for those who do not follow it)? Not much, according to the media and the greater community, who have not said much about the nearly 6-year old program. Part of this could be due to a lack of consumer and media knowledge of the program. A need for the program to expand or to change may be necessary as another factory fire occurred on October 9 in Bangladesh when another 10 people were killed.

Gap’s program announced plans to community settings at the Clinton Global Initiative in select countries in fall of 2012. Though there has not been a lot of information made available towards the changes of this expansion, there will no doubt continue to be discussion on this topic as factory fires and catastrophies seem to be disturbingly commonplace in countries where Gap has factories and much at stake.