A new plan for audits of labor conditions at Walmart’s US distribution centers drew skeptical reactions from labor groups Thursday. According to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the plan on December 28, Walmart’s plan is “similar to” the labor monitoring system the company currently uses for its overseas suppliers in countries such as China and Bangladesh.
“Walmart’s global labor rights monitoring program is a public relations scam put in place to address public relations problems arising from their use of sweatshop labor,” Workers Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova told The Nation. “In that sense, it makes perfect sense that now that they’re facing public relations problems anew around treatment of workers in their domestic distribution system, that they would choose to apply the same public relations scam to that problem that they’ve applied internationally.” The WRC is an international labor monitoring group whose board is composed of university administrators, labor advocates and students.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment. In past statements to The Nation, the retail giant has defended conditions in its warehouses, dismissed claims that it is legally responsible for them, and denied that it retaliates against activist workers. According to Journal reporter Shelly Banjo, the new plan “includes unannounced visits of all third-party operated warehouses by independent auditors.” Banjo wrote that the plan, which has not been formally announced, was confirmed by Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogleman, who told her, “We take this seriously.”
Walmart’s new auditing system follows a wave of pressure in recent months from sub-contracted workers in its US distribution centers. As The Nation has reported, this has included lawsuits aiming to hold Walmart legally responsible for those facilities’ conditions, and repeated strikes in response to alleged retaliation. In October, a senior Walmart official met with a few workers active in the labor group Warehouse Workers United, a project of the Change to Win union federation.
David Garcia, a WWU activist who was fired from his job at a Walmart distribution center in California, said the Journal report “kind of shocked me.” Garcia told The Nation he was disturbed to hear that Walmart could use its international monitoring approach as a model for its domestic warehouses, less than two months after 112 workers died in a fire at a Bangladesh factory that supplied Walmart apparel.
Warehouse Workers United Director Nick Allen said the group would “reserve judgment” pending the details of Walmart’s new plan, but that reports that the new system would be similar to the one used abroad are “not at all reassuring.” That system, charged Allen, “led directly to the deaths of 112 people in Bangladesh.”
As The Nation has reported, Walmart has said it had cut off that Bangladeshi factory prior to fire, and blamed the presence of its goods there on a rogue supplier; critics have blamed the tragedy on Walmart’s relentless squeeze on supplier labor costs, and its veto of a proposal for retailers to fund safety improvements.
The day after the Journal broke the news of Walmart’s plan to bring audits like those it uses in Bangladesh to the United States, The New York Times published a story by reporters Steven Greenhouse and Jim Yardley with new details on the lead-up to the November 24 fire. Among them: that three inspection reports beginning in 2011 had “revealed serious repeated violations” like blocked escape routes and insufficient fire extinguishers; that ten weeks before the fire, the majority of the factory’s production was still for Walmart suppliers; and that inspectors were not instructed to check for fire-safe emergency exits.
The WRC’s Nova told The Nation that if Walmart were truly serious about improving workers’ rights, it would start paying its suppliers and contractors enough money “to produce an environment in which labor law and workers rights are respected, which they don’t do internationally, and they don’t do domestically.” Until that happens, said Nova, “no monitoring system is going to have any impact on working conditions.”
Nova, whose group works with local labor groups in Bangladesh and elsewhere, added that Walmart has long resisted publicly disclosing information about its supply chain. “So the refusal of Walmart to pay appropriate prices to suppliers explains why the monitoring fails,” said Nova, “and the lack of transparency is how they try to cover up that failure.”
WWU’s Allen argued that true reform of the labor conditions in Walmart’s supply chain would require respect for workers’ right to organize without retaliation. “That’s the key ingredient that allows workers to police their own working conditions,” said Allen. He noted that respect for collective bargaining rights is already included in Walmart’s official “Standards For Suppliers,” but said that document has “absolutely not been applied in practice,” either within the United States or abroad. “If that measure were actually implemented,” said Allen, “those people in Bangladesh would not be dead.” Allen said WWU is “hopeful that a dialogue can continue” with Walmart, but that aside from an exchange of voicemails, “there’s been no follow-up” since the initial meeting in October.
“The truth,” said Garcia, “is that the system allows retaliation to continue.” He added that if Walmart was really committed to improving conditions in its warehouses, it would make its contractors and subcontractors reinstate him and other workers who were fired for speaking up.
Despite their skepticism about its content, WRC and WWU leaders called Walmart’s announcement a sign of momentum for worker activists. “They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t feel like they had some vulnerability on the issue,” said Nova. “So that’s a sign that the organizers are having some impact.”
In this week's issue, Erika Eichelberger unearths the sexual violence suffered by migrant workers in the US. Read more here.