Friday, December 7, 2012

Walmart and Bangladesh Deadly Fire that Killed 112 Workers

As a Bangladeshi American, this story has multiple connections to me, in addition to the obvious feminist issues like labor rights violations and loss of life.  

Jerin

Documents Undermine Walmart Account on Deadly Bangladesh Fire
December 6, 2012
The Nation.com Blog
http://www.thenation.com/blog/171628/documents-undermine-walmart-account-deadly-bangladesh-fire

Two news reports yesterday shed new light on Walmart's
relationship to the Bangladesh factory where at least 112
workers died in a November 24 fire. One shows Walmart's role
in defeating a proposal for retail corporations to pay for
safety improvements; the other shows that multiple Walmart
suppliers used the factory this year.

"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," said Scott Nova, the executive
director of the Workers Rights Consortium, in an e-mail to
The Nation. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment
late last night.

In a Wednesday morning article, Bloomberg News reported an
April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, at which major
retail corporations considered a proposed agreement under
which they would pay more so that their suppliers could make
safety improvements. Ineke Zeldenrust of the Amsterdam-based
NGO Clean Clothes Campaign told Bloomberg that Walmart's
director of ethical sourcing, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, said at
the meeting that Walmart would not agree to pay the higher
cost.

Bloomberg reporters Renee Dudley and Arun Devnath also
revealed a document written by Kalavakolanu and a Gap
official, which was included in the meeting's minutes, which
stated, "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.
It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such
investments."

Zeldenrust, the Clean Clothes Campaign's international
coordinator, told the New York Times' Steven Greenhouse that
Walmart was the company that "most strongly advocated this
position." The 2011 meeting followed dozens of deaths in
Bangladesh factory fires. The Tazreen factory in Bangladesh,
the site of last month's deadly fire, had limited fire exits
and no fire escapes.

"No company," Nova told The Nation, "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."

The Times article, also published Wednesday, revealed that
at least three supplier companies were using the Tazreen
factory during the past year to provide apparel for Walmart
and its subsidiary Sam's Club. According to Greenhouse, the
documents "include an internal production report from mid-
September showing that 5 of the factory's 14 production
lines were devoted to making apparel for Walmart." Another
Bloomberg article by Dudley yesterday reported that at least
five Walmart suppliers used the Tazreen factory.

These articles may draw renewed scrutiny to Walmart's
account of its role in the factory and the Bangladesh
apparel industry. As The Nation has reported, following the
November 24 fire, Walmart initially said it could not
confirm that it had ever sourced apparel from the Tazreen
factory, and could not confirm the authenticity of a
document found on the website of Tazreen's parent company,
Tuba Group, which showed that a Walmart audit had uncovered
"higher-risk violations" in the factory in May 2011. Photos
taken by Bangladeshi labor activists, first published by The
Nation on November 26, showed Walmart-branded clothing
present in the factory after the fire.

In an evening statement November 26, Walmart said that it
had suspended the Tazreen Factory prior to the fire, but a
supplier had continued filing orders there on Walmart's
behalf in violation of Walmart's decision. Walmart called
the incident "extremely troubling," said that it had
terminated the rogue supplier, and again touted its ongoing
"work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety
education and training in Bangladesh." Following the
statement, Walmart declined The Nation's request for comment
regarding the identity of the supplier and when the factory
ceased to be authorized.

The WRC's Nova, who provided the documents to the Times,
told The Nation that they clearly establish that there were
multiple Walmart suppliers using the Tazreen Factory as
recently as April of this year, and at least one when the
fire broke out. He added that there are "strong indications
in the documents, but short of certain, that it was still
multiple suppliers at the time of the fire," rather than the
single rogue supplier implied by Walmart's statement. The
WRC is a labor monitoring group whose board is composed of
students, university administrators, and labor
organizations. (Some of the Tazreen documents are posted
below; they were provided to The Nation by the Corporate
Action Network, which also posted them on its own website.)

Nova also called Walmart's role in the 2011 Dhaka meeting
"especially revealing." He described Walmart's position as
"1) We know these factories are unsafe. 2) We know it will
cost substantial sums to make them safe. 3) We are not going
to pay for this. 4) We are going to keep using the factories
anyway."

Walmart's senior director for international corporate
affairs, Kevin Gardner, told the Times that the 2011
comments from the company's ethical sourcing director had
been taken "out of context" and that "Walmart has been
advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi
government, with industry groups and with suppliers."
Regarding the documents showing multiple suppliers active in
the factory this year, Gardner told Greenhouse, "As we've
said the Tazreen factory was deauthorized months ago. We
don't comment on specific supplier relationships."

The Corporate Action Network, which helped organize Black
Friday protests in support of US Walmart retail workers, has
posted resources on its website encouraging activists to
"end deathtraps for Walmart workers" by signing a petition,
writing a letter to the editor, and installing a "memorial
shrine to the victims of the Tazreen factory fire at a
Walmart near you." Some US retail workers in union-backed
group OUR Walmart are raising money and holding prayer
services for the families affected by the fire in
Bangladesh.

"Walmart's greed and arrogance appear to be boundless," said
Nova. This is a company that siphons billions in subsidies
from US taxpayers, that has made billions in profits on the
backs of Bangladeshi workers, then scoffs at the notion that
it should be asked to pay one dime to protect those workers
from dying in factory fires while they sew Walmart clothes."

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