An update, with comment from Walmart, appears below.
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 Aaction 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.”
Update (1:30 PM Thursday): In an e-mail to The Nation, Walmart's senior director for international corporate affairs, Kevin Gardner, reiterated the company's position that "the Tazreen factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart months before the fire," and that "Regarding the Bloomberg report, those remarks are out of context."
Gardner added, "Walmart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers. We have been actively developing and implementing proactive programs to raise fire safety awareness and increase fire prevention. We firmly believe factory owners must meet our Standards for Suppliers and we recognize the cost of meeting those standards will be part of the cost of the goods we buy."
Check out Josh Eidelson's coverage of Walmart's labor battles here at home.