Looks like there are limits to Walmart’s largesse. After announcing its $1.6 million contribution towards the establishment of an Environmental Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh, the world’s largest retailer has so far declined to join other companies in voluntarily compensating victims of a devastating fire that killed 112 garment workers outside the capital of Dhaka in November. The company, allegedly Tazreen Fashions’ largest buyer, also failed to attend a meeting hosted by the IndustriAll Union in Geneva Monday, where companies that contracted the facility, including C&A in the Netherlands, KiK in Germany, and El Corte Inglés of Spain, discussed compensation payments for the injured and families of the deceased.
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Besides Walmart, other no-shows included Sears/Kmart, Disney, Dickies, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill (U.K.), Teddy Smith (France), Karl Reiker (Germany), Li & Fung (Hong Kong), and Piazza Italia (Italy), although the last two have agreed to participate in the compensation package.
Besides Walmart, other no-shows included Sears/Kmart, Disney, Dickies, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and Karl Reiker.
The compensation plan, developed by IndustriAll and its Bangladesh affiliates and supported by international labor-rights groups such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker Rights Consortium, is based on a formula used in other recent fires, including the December 2010 fire at That’s It Sportswear, a factory that produced clothing for Gap and other U.S. brands. Final details of the plan will be worked out in a subsequent meeting to be held in Dhaka.
“We have agreed on confirming the concrete amounts that each of these brands will contribute by the end of this month” Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriAll, says in a statement. “The families and the injured have already waited far too long.”
Walmart has previously dodged responsibility by denouncing—and then subsequently firing—one of its suppliers for using the Tazreen facility without its knowledge or approval. Because the retailer didn’t directly employ the workers at Tazreen, it’s not legally obligated to make reparations.
Because Walmart didn’t directly employ the workers at Tazreen, it’s not legally obligated to make reparations.
But despite Walmart’s repeated vows of improving safety standards, labor activists say the company presents a significant obstacle to any real change in the South Asian nation, which is plagued with weak worker protections and even laxer government oversight. Walmart played a key role in blocking a proposal to have global corporations underwrite safety improvements at their Bangladeshi factories, according to the minutes of an April 2011 meeting and the testimony of several attendees.
Walmart has also refused to cave to pressure from labor groups to sign a legally binding, first-of-its-kind contract governing fire-safety inspections at thousands of facilities in Bangladesh. Signatories would agree to publicly report fire hazards at factories, ban subcontracting to high-risk facilities, finance renovations and fire-safety training, and make audit results public. They would also be liable when a factory fire occurs. So far, only PVH Corp., which owns the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, and Tchibo, a German coffee retailer that also sells clothes, have agreed to participate, but only on the condition that other brands sign on, as well.