Walmart play a lead role in blocking a proposal to have global retailers help their Bangladesh suppliers improve their electrical and fire safety, according to the minutes of a meeting that have emerged in the wake of a factory fire that killed at least 112 garment workers in Dhaka last month. More than a dozen retailers, including Walmart, Gap, Target, and JCPenney convened in the Bangladesh capital in April 2011 to discuss a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay their factories more to cover the cost of upgrading their manufacturing facilities. Walmart, however, opposed the idea, noting that it wasn’t “financially feasible” for brands to invest in the expensive modifications some factories would require.
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THE PLOT SICKENS
Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Walmart director of ethical sourcing, and her counterpart at Gap told attendees their companies weren’t willing to pay for the safety improvements. “Specifically to the issue of any corrections on electrical and fire safety, we are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories,” they stated in a document, which was later incorporated into the minutes. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
A Walmart representative said the company wasn’t willing to pay more to cover safety improvements at its Bangladesh factories.
Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardner told the New York Times that the company official’s remarks in Bangladesh were taken out of context. “Walmart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers,” he said, adding that the retailer—the world’s largest—has helped develop programs to increase fire safety.
But some labor-rights campaigners aren’t so convinced. “Walmart’s efforts to evade accountability make a mockery of its pretensions to be committed to protecting the rights of workers in its supply chain,” Scott Nova, the executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, told The Nation on Thursday. “No company that is unwilling to pay [factories] enough to make it possible for them to operate safely can claim to be interested in any way in the rights or safety of workers.”
Although Walmart insists that Tazreen Fashions, the site of Bangladesh’s worst industrial accident, was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for the retailer, documents photographed by a Bangladeshi labor organizer after the fire revealed that five of the factory’s 14 production lines were dedicated to producing apparel for Walmart as late as mid-September.
Walmart’s Gardner said that accredited third-party auditors regularly inspected the facility on the company’s behalf. A May 2011 audit produced an “orange” rating, indicating “higher-risk violations.” A follow-up inspection that August downgraded Tazreen to a “yellow” rating, meaning “medium-risk violations.”
Two days after the fire, the retailer announced that a supplier had “subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of [its] policies.” Walmart also said it had severed its relationship with that supplier, although it declined to name it.