Bangladeshi Activists Bring Fight to Wal-Mart’s Doorstep

Michelle Chen April 20, 2013

The day after the enormous fire in Bangladesh in November, Kalpona Akter holds up a garment bearing Wal-Mart's brand, "Faded Glory," which she found in the ashes inside the Tazreen factory (Photo by Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity)

Wal-Mart’s busi­ness mod­el runs on the art of delu­sion. Clean aisles and bright décor insu­late cus­tomers from the unseem­ly fac­to­ries that pro­duce the brand’s sought-after bar­gains. But when Wal-Mart’s label was found plas­tered all over the charred remains of a mas­sive fac­to­ry fire in Bangladesh last fall, the ugli­ness at the root of the retail giant’s sup­ply chain was exposed.

The com­pa­ny, how­ev­er, con­tin­ues to ignore vic­tims’ demands for com­pen­sa­tion, so Bangladeshi activists and their allies have brought their griev­ances to Wal-Mart’s doorstep in a 10-city U.S. tour.

In New York on Thurs­day, activists from the U.S. and Bangladesh ral­lied to demand com­pen­sa­tion from Wal-Mart, Sears and oth­er multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies that con­tract­ed with the Tazreen fac­to­ry that burned down in Novem­ber, killing some 112 peo­ple. The stop was part of the mul­ti-city tour coor­di­nat­ed by anti-sweat­shop and labor groups to call on cor­po­ra­tions to End Death Traps.”

The actions reflect a broad­er move­ment for account­abil­i­ty in a multi­na­tion­al man­u­fac­tur­ing sup­ply chain that stretch­es from Latin Amer­i­ca to the U.S. to South Asia. As Josh Eidel­son report­ed in the Nation this week, activists are also tar­get­ing Wal-Mart over its links to sys­tem­at­ic attacks on union activists in Nicaragua, led by one of its multi­na­tion­al con­trac­tors, SAE‑A. In this case, as in the Bangladesh fire, Wal-Mart has dis­tanced itself from the scan­dal with the same metic­u­lous image man­age­ment that it applies to its prod­uct line. In both scan­dals, the cor­po­ra­tion places the blame on con­trac­tors at the bot­tom of the sup­ply chain. But advo­ca­cy groups point to the direct and indi­rect ties from big brands like Wal-Mart and Sears to small sup­pli­ers and under­reg­u­lat­ed fac­to­ries in the Glob­al South. Multi­na­tion­als use this cheap sub­con­tract­ed labor to squeeze down prices while pre­serv­ing a clean, con­sumer-friend­ly image.

Wal-Mart has stead­fast­ly denied any direct cul­pa­bil­i­ty for the deaths at Tazreen, declined to respond to work­ers’ demands that vic­tims be com­pen­sat­ed and refused to join dia­logues with oth­er com­pa­nies about com­pen­sa­tion. Mean­while, a coali­tion of sev­er­al Euro­pean brands affil­i­at­ed with Tazreen has pro­ceed­ed with dis­cus­sion on a $5.7 mil­lion com­pen­sa­tion plan for vic­tims.

But since dan­ger­ous con­di­tions in fac­to­ries are a symp­tom of a deeply exploita­tive labor struc­ture, activists aim not only to make com­pa­nies take finan­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty for work­place dis­as­ters, but also to change the way they do busi­ness in poor coun­tries.

The Inter­na­tion­al Labor Rights Forum and Bangladeshi labor activists are press­ing Wal-Mart to sign onto a new mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem. Unlike the cur­rent, vol­un­tary stan­dards for cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty, which are over­seen by orga­ni­za­tions close­ly tied to indus­try, the new sys­tem would be over­seen by inde­pen­dent civ­il soci­ety groups.

The cur­rent inspec­tors have many incen­tives to rub­ber-stamp inspec­tions of their cor­po­rate part­ners,” and in the after­math of the Tazreen fire, activists were out­raged that they seemed to bol­ster Wal-mart’s claim of plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty. The cer­ti­fi­ca­tion body World­wide Respon­si­ble Accred­it­ed Pro­duc­tion denied ever hav­ing inspect­ed the fac­to­ry. Sep­a­rate­ly, so-called eth­i­cal sourc­ing” audit post­ed on Tazreen Fash­ion’s web­site appeared to give the sup­pli­er a stamp of approval, despite doc­u­ment­ed violations. 

Sumi Abe­din, a young work­er on the tour who sur­vived the Tazreen blaze by jump­ing out of a win­dow, tells In These Times that work­ers were encour­aged to deny dan­ger­ous con­di­tions: When audi­tors vis­it­ed, they told us what to say. We were sup­posed to say that the gates are always open, that there is no excess pro­duc­tion, that we are pro­vid­ed with masks – none of this is true.”

Wal-Mart has attempt­ed to pre­empt pres­sure for stronger reg­u­la­tion by tout­ing its own safe­ty reform plan focused on tight­en­ing sub­con­trac­tor safe­ty mon­i­tor­ing. But the ILRF has point­ed out that numer­ous loop­holes in the plan would essen­tial­ly enable Wal-Mart to self-police and thus avoid real account­abil­i­ty. The pro­gram also does not include an explic­it role for unions and work­ers. By con­trast, the Bangladesh Fire Safe­ty Agree­ment that labor groups have draft­ed, which was already signed by PVH/​Tommy Hil­figer and Tchi­bo last year (and needs four major brands to sign on to take effect), stip­u­lates that after mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers lay out a reform plan, unions and oth­er non-gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions shall be con­sult­ed at an ear­ly stage in the reme­di­a­tion process if progress is not being made.”

Kalpona Akter, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Bangladesh Cen­ter for Work­er Sol­i­dar­i­ty and anoth­er mem­ber of the tour, told In These Times via email that Wal-Mart’s safe­ty ini­tia­tive, like its labor prac­tices in gen­er­al, degrades the essen­tial role of workers:.

Wal­mart’s announce­ment will not save work­ers from dying in future fires. There is no amount of train­ing that will add safe fire exits to fac­to­ries…. If Wal­mart is tru­ly seri­ous about pre­vent­ing future deaths, they must sign the exist­ing fire safe­ty agree­ment that has already been signed by PVH/​Tommy Hil­figer and Tchi­bo. Until work­ers are involved in the improve­ment process, there will be no real change.

In the long term, Akter added, work­ers need both eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and safe­ty: Brands need to both require their sup­pli­ers to pay liv­ing wages and respect free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion, as well as pay high­er prices to fac­to­ries in order to make pos­si­ble high­er wages.”

On top of the fire safe­ty agree­ment to pre­vent future dis­as­ters, the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Rights Forum has joined with Ware­house Work­ers Unit­ed and oth­er labor groups to push for stronger reg­u­la­tions at var­i­ous links in the sup­ply chain, from gar­ment fac­to­ries in Asia to ware­hous­es in Illi­nois. Ware­hous­es that serve Wal-Mart’s logis­tics chain are known for labor vio­la­tions such as wage theft and gen­der discrimination.

A tighter safe­ty sys­tem would com­ple­ment oth­er efforts to empow­er work­ers. Gar­ment work­ers in Cam­bo­dia, for instance, recent­ly used their coun­try’s legal sys­tem to nego­ti­ate a size­able set­tle­ment with a Wal-Mart and H&M‑affiliated sup­pli­er over owed wages. That kind of engage­ment between gov­ern­ments, com­pa­nies and work­ers and labor advo­cates would help hold employ­ers account­able for any work­place injus­tices, whether it’s a dead­ly fire or rou­tine wage theft.

In try­ing to hold Wal-Mart to its word on cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty,” the peo­ple who sew, pack, ship and process our con­sumer cul­ture have bor­rowed a page from Wal-Mart’s brand­ing strat­e­gy, by mass-mar­ket­ing their own glob­al­ized brand of resistance.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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