An update, including Walmart's new statement blaming the apparel's presence on a rogue supplier, and reactions from advocates, appears below.
NGOs slammed Walmart over a fire that killed at least 112 workers at a Bangladesh factory that supplied apparel for the retail giant. While Walmart says it has not confirmed that it has any relationship to the factory, photos provided to The Nation show piles of clothes made for one of its exclusive brands.
In a statement e-mailed Sunday night, Walmart expressed sympathy for the victims’ families, and said that it was “trying to determine if the factory has a current relationship with Walmart or one of our suppliers…” The company called fire safety “a critically important area of Walmart’s factory audit program,” and said that it has been “working across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.” Walmart added that it has “partnered with several independent organizations to develop and roll out fire safety training tools for factory management and workers.”
But in a Monday interview, Workers Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova said Walmart’s “culpability is enormous. First of all they are the largest buyer from Bangladesh” and so “they make the market.” Nova said Bangladesh has become the world's second largest apparel supplier "because they’ve given Walmart and its competitors what they want, which is the cheapest possible labor costs.”
“So 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,” Nova told The Nation. “This factory is a product of that strategy that Walmart invites, supports, and perpetuates.” The WRC is a labor monitoring group whose board is composed of students, labor organizations, and university administrators.
The fire started Saturday night in a ground floor warehouse. According to media reports, the factory’s emergency exits were insufficient in number and unsafe in design, routing through the inside, rather than the outside, of the building. Some workers survived on the factory’s roof; several jumped out of the building. A lack of safe fire exits contributed to the death toll in New York’s notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
A document on the website of the factory’s owner, Tuba Group, showed that the factory had received an “orange” rating from Walmart in May 2011, due to “violations and/or conditions that were deemed to be high risk.” The same document said that three such ratings within two years would result in a year-long suspension by Walmart.
“Obviously, they didn’t do anything about it,” said Nova. He called Walmart’s internal monitoring system “a joke” that was “set up to enable Walmart to claim that it’s policing, without in any way, shape or form inconveniencing its production process.”