One Year After Rana Plaza, Safety Issues in Walmart Supply Chain Persist

Yana Kunichoff April 26, 2014

A man with a photo of a relative who disappeared in Bangladesh's Rana Plaza collapse; Walmart was one of the largest corporations implicated in the disaster.

On the one-year anniver­sary of the dead­ly col­lapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-sto­ry fac­to­ry in Bangladesh — one small com­po­nent of the mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar glob­al gar­ment indus­try — labor groups around the world are tak­ing to the streets, chant­i­ng nev­er again.” In Bangladesh, fam­i­ly mem­bers of the over 1,100 gar­ment work­ers killed joined for­mer work­ers and pro­test­ers out­side the site of the col­lapse, while activists in Lon­don formed a human chain on the city’s busiest shop­ping street to urge local retail­ers to be more trans­par­ent about work­ing con­di­tions in their sup­ply chains.

In the year since the col­lapse, advo­cates say they have suc­cess­ful­ly shift­ed the con­ver­sa­tion about respon­si­bil­i­ty for fac­to­ry pro­duc­tion con­di­tions to the multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions them­selves — such as Benet­ton and Nord­strom, both of which had tags found in the Rana Plaza wreck­age. The groups have also begun to facil­i­tate a dia­logue around the ways in which cor­po­ra­tions prof­it from low wages and cor­ner-cut­ting on safe­ty for the pro­duc­tion of the cheap, fash­ion­able clothes they peddle. 

But while the media may rec­og­nize that the respon­si­bil­i­ty for gar­ment work­ers belongs to the multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies that out­source to them, few cor­po­ra­tions have tak­en part in the con­crete steps cham­pi­oned by advo­ca­cy groups to help vic­tims. For exam­ple, a com­pen­sa­tion fund for vic­tims was set up to enable retail­ers to donate to the impact­ed work­ers, but only $15 mil­lion — one-third of the $40 mil­lion goal — has been raised by the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Orga­ni­za­tion (ILO), which chairs the fund.

The cor­po­rate community’s inac­tion has left sur­vivors scram­bling to make a liv­ing with­out ade­quate health­care or wages, accord­ing to a report by Human Rights Watch. Anoth­er round of inter­views con­duct­ed by Action­Aid, a glob­al NGO, inter­viewed 1,436 sur­vivors and 786 fam­i­ly mem­bers of work­ers who died in the Rana col­lapse. The study found that two-thirds of them had trou­ble buy­ing food, and half found it dif­fi­cult to make rent. Almost three in four hadn’t been able to work, and 76 per­cent were still receiv­ing med­ical treatment.

Rabeya Begum was one of the 2,500 work­ers res­cued from the rub­ble. In Decem­ber, Begum lost both of her legs due to injuries she sus­tained in the col­lapse. But because her legs were removed months after the inci­dent, Begum missed out on the gov­ern­ment com­pen­sa­tion pro­gram meant to pro­vide a guar­an­teed income to work­ers who had lost limbs in Rana Plaza. With­out a guar­an­teed income, she has been rely­ing on dona­tions to sur­vive, but says that mon­ey will soon be gone as well. “ I have four chil­dren and my hus­band can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” she told Human Rights Watch.

The ILO’s Con­ven­tion 121 dic­tates the com­pen­sa­tion due to an injured work­er based on their loss of future earn­ings, as well as pain and suf­fer­ing. After the Bangladeshi dis­as­ter, ILO pro­posed $40 mil­lion in com­pen­sa­tion for survivors.

But accord­ing to Liana Foxvog, direc­tor of orga­niz­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the forum, there are no legal mech­a­nisms com­pelling retail­ers to pay into the com­pen­sa­tion fund. That loop­hole made attempts to com­pel multi­na­tion­als to pay dam­ages for an ear­li­er dis­as­ter—a 2012 fac­to­ry fire in Bangladesh which left over 100 dead—all but futile.

For Rana Plaza work­ers, the first install­ment of fund pay­outs as it stands will be $645 per worker.

(In 2012, the year before the walls of Rana Plaza crum­bled, Wal­mart, one of the largest multi­na­tion­als that alleged­ly out­sourced to Rana Plaza — a claim the com­pa­ny denied — made $17 bil­lion in prof­its.)

Aside from mate­r­i­al relief, one of the con­crete gains that came out of the post-col­lapse out­cry was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Build­ing Safe­ty, a legal­ly bind­ing agree­ment over­seen by the ILO and sev­er­al work­ers rights groups. The accord sets safe­ty stan­dards and man­dates pub­lic report­ing of inde­pen­dent safe­ty inspec­tions. Along with union sig­na­to­ries, over 150 appar­el cor­po­ra­tions have signed on to the accord, though major U.S. com­pa­nies like Gap and Wal­mart are con­spic­u­ous absences.

Though Wal­mart denies being an autho­rized” sup­pli­er to Rana, news reports found that one of the fac­to­ries list­ed Wal­mart as a client. The cor­po­ra­tion has long been a tar­get of labor groups in the U.S., that call on the com­pa­ny to improve work­ing hours and ben­e­fits for asso­ciates in its stores, as well as for improved safe­ty con­di­tions in its warehouses.

Wal-mart hit abroad, and at home, with labor unrest

Thir­ty-some pro­test­ers pick­et­ed out­side of a Wal­mart Express on Chicago’s North Side yes­ter­day, the one-year anniver­sary of the Rana Plaza col­lapse, stress­ing that the dif­fer­ences in Walmart’s treat­ment of its work­ers in the sup­ply chain are only of severity. 

David Fields, 44, was among the group of Chica­go-area pro­tes­tors. Fields says he was fired from his job this month — as a fork­lift dri­ver at a ware­house that sup­plies Wal­mart, half an hour south of the city in Ham­mond, Ind.— because he spoke out about the need for an ade­quate fire alarm sys­tem in the build­ing. And that safe­ty con­cern was only the tip of the ice­berg, said Fields, who had been work­ing at the ware­house since Sep­tem­ber. At some point we all start­ed feel­ing like mod­ern day slaves,” he said, describ­ing his days work­ing in sub-zero tem­per­a­tures dur­ing the icy polar vor­tex that hit Chicagoland this past win­ter. They didn’t care that peo­ple were get­ting frost-bitten.”

Fields’ com­plaints car­ry echoes of those com­mon­ly made by work­ers in sup­ply-chain fac­to­ries over­seas, espe­cial­ly the pres­sure to always speed up pro­duc­tion and con­tin­ue work­ing in severe cli­mate con­di­tions. Najneen Akter Naz­ma, a fac­to­ry work­er who sur­vived the Rana dis­as­ter — though her hus­band was killed — said she and her hus­band had been told about a crack run­ning across the floor near his work­sta­tion, but knew they couldn’t take a day off work because it would cost them their month­ly salary. And for Fields, a slip­pery floor in the ware­house, wet after a day of rain — which for his super­vi­sors is no excuse to slow down work — car­ries with it the con­stant fear of being injured by the heavy loads he used to work with.

For his part, Fields was able to file a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board after he was fired. Gar­ment work­ers in Bangladesh — who have long labored in unreg­u­lat­ed indus­tries — are offered few labor protections. 

Feel­ing the heat, but is it enough?

Foxvog has said it’s clear the gar­ment indus­try has felt the pub­lic pres­sure to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for its con­tract work­ers over­seas, will it be enough to com­pel cor­po­ra­tions to change pro­duc­tion prac­tices? A hand­ful of North Amer­i­can indus­try lead­ers — includ­ing Wal­mart — cre­at­ed the Alliance for Bangladesh Work­er Safe­ty in response to the dis­as­ter, which they say will release reg­u­lar reports and main­tain stan­dards in Bangladesh fac­to­ries, much in the same way the third-par­ty Bangladesh Accord is intend­ed to. Despite the promis­es of ade­quate over­sight, only one of the 26 com­pa­nies in the alliance—Fruit of the Loom—has signed onto the Bangladesh Accord, which has the back­ing of U.N. groups, unions and advocates.

In a state­ment on the Rana Plaza tragedy, Wal­mart stressed that the safe­ty of work­ers in our sup­ply chain is very impor­tant” to the com­pa­ny. It went on to note that Wal­mart had made a $3 mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion to a Bangladeshi human­i­tar­i­an fund, while also tout­ing its role in the alliance. Advo­cates want Wal­mart to instead pay into the ILO-led com­pen­sa­tion fund, and sign on to the safe­ty accord, which they argue has more impar­tial oversight.

Wal­mart has repeat­ed­ly denied its con­nec­tion safe­ty and work­place issues in its ware­hous­es, and has used plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty in the past to dis­tance itself from its Bangladeshi sup­pli­ers. Still, thanks to inter­na­tion­al pres­sure — and despite its ini­tial denials of respon­si­bil­i­ty — Wal­mart has been forced to pub­licly address the con­di­tions in Bangladesh, and make minor concessions.

But that strat­e­gy hasn’t car­ried over to the company’s state­side oper­a­tions. Wal­mart has claimed it is not respon­si­ble for the con­di­tions in the Chica­go-area dis­tri­b­u­tion ware­house as work­ers were employed through a third par­ty ser­vice provider,” essen­tial­ly prox­ies the com­pa­ny uses to con­tract with the ware­hous­es. Only time will tell if the bur­geon­ing move­ments against Walmart’s labor prac­tices in the U.S. will even­tu­al­ly win com­pa­ra­ble victories.

To keep a tragedy like the Rana Plaza col­lapse from occur­ring again, work­ers groups are call­ing for a fair-trade, union­ized work­force as the only way to keep com­pa­nies account­able, both at home and overseas.

For Foxvog, that means that vic­tims need com­pen­sa­tion,” but also that work­ers must be afford­ed the the right to refuse dan­ger­ous work” when they fear the foun­da­tions of their build­ing won’t stand, a right denied the work­ers of Rana Plaza, and with dead­ly consequences.

Yana Kuni­choff is a Chica­go-based inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacif­ic Stan­dard and the Chica­go Read­er, among oth­ers. She can be reached at yanaku­ni­choff at gmail​.com.
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