Walmart has fired the supplier that subcontracted work to a Bangladesh garment factory where at least 112 people died in a deadly fire on Saturday. The world’s largest retailer said that Tazreen Fashions was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for the company, but the supplier, which the company declined to identify, continued to fan out work there “in direct violation of [its] policies” anyway, according to Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardner in a statement on Tuesday. “Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,” he said. Despite the company’s eagerness to distance itself from the country’s worst industrial disaster in history, however, labor activists claim that Walmart is no less culpable.
PREVIOUSLY ON ECOUTERRE: Bangladesh Garment-Factory Fire Claims 112 Lives Because of Safety Issues
“Walmart is supporting, is incentivizing, an industry strategy in Bangladesh: extreme low wages, non-existent regulation, brutal suppression of any attempt by workers to act collectively to improve wages and conditions,” Scott Nova, executive of the Workers Rights Consortium, a Washington, D.C.-based labor-rights monitoring group, told The Nation on Monday. “This factory is a product of that strategy that Walmart invites, supports, and perpetuates.”
Bangladesh’s garment industry, which is second only to China in terms of clothing exports, has a notoriously spotty fire-safety record. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have perished in fires resulting from unsafe buildings, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment and sportswear industries.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, which is second only to China in terms of clothing exports, has a notoriously spotty fire-safety record.
Export data further indicates that Walmart is the second-largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh after H&M. In its 2012 Global Responsibility Report, the company said that “fire safety continues to be a key focus for brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh.” It also claimed to visit supplier factories, identifying those at “high risk for fire-safety hazards” and ending relationships with 49 factories in Bangladesh because of fire-safety issues in 2011.
A document posted on Tazreen Fashions’ website indicated that an “ethical sourcing” official for Walmart had flagged the factory in May 2011 for unspecified “violations and/or conditions which were deemed to be high risk.” It was downgraded to “medium risk” that August. Although the factory was due an inspection within a year, it remains unclear if it was ever conducted.
Labor-rights groups, including the Clean Clothes Campaign and the International Labor Rights Forum have struggled to develop a fire-safety program to prevent future deaths in Bangladesh’s garment industry. In March, PVH Corp., which owns Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and IZOD, signed an agreement that includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable. Tchibo, a German retailer, signed on in September.
“Unfortunately, Gap withdrew last month from fire-safety discussions and instead announced [its] own non-binding program, which lacks central elements of the fire-safety program signed by PVH and Tchibo,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labor Rights Forum. “We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh’s low wages to make a profit. Their voluntary and confidential monitoring programs have failed; now it is time to come together and make a contractual commitment to workers and to involve workers and their organizations in the solution.”
[Via Bloomberg Businessweek]