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Walmart's Bangladesh Factory Safety Plan Draws Skepticism From Worker Advocates

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WALMART BANGLADESH FACTORY
This file photo shows the rain-soaked handle of a shopping cart outside a Walmart store. Walmart announced Tuesday it will implement its own plan to address factory safety in Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File) | AP

Walmart announced Tuesday that it plans to develop its own safety program to address dangerous working conditions in factories in Bangladesh, where the collapse of a garment factory complex last month took the lives of more than 1,100 people.

In a press release, Walmart said it would conduct "in-depth safety inspections" at every facility in Bangladesh engaged in making its wares. The company pledged to make the reviews public within six months, while elevating "the entire market" to "a new standard" in worker safety.

But labor advocates reacted skeptically, noting that Walmart’s announcement came only after at least seven major retail brands agreed to join forces and sign a safety accord hailed by supporters as industry-changing. That plan is legally binding, with sanctions facing factories that fail to live up to its standards, but Walmart now appears unlikely to participate.

By contrast, what Walmart announced on Tuesday is a voluntary program that amounts to no more than an aspirational statement, labor advocates said. They portrayed the announcement as a crafty public relations device: Noting that the deadline to sign the stricter industry-wide accord lands on Wednesday, they took Walmart’s statement as a sign the company will not go along with that agreement, while still finding a way to take credit for bold action.

"It's not surprising, and the timing is fishy," said Brian Finnegan, global worker rights coordinator at the AFL-CIO, the labor federation. "The whole point of what we're doing is to make it binding and enforceable."

A Walmart spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about whether the announcement of the new program meant the retailer wouldn't be joining the multi-company agreement.

That contract, known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, will require Western brands to underwrite safety improvements in dangerous factories, with financial commitments established on a sliding scale according to how much business each company has in the country.

It's the kind of binding legal agreement that worker advocates have been pressuring Walmart, Gap and other major American retailers to sign after several massive workplace disasters in Bangladesh. But as of Tuesday afternoon, PVH, the parent company to Calvin Klein, remained the only American-based company to join.

Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a nonprofit that strongly backs the safety accord, said the lack of participation was "frightfully embarrassing" for U.S. companies who hadn't signed on, including Walmart. He argued that the program laid out by Walmart was not meaningfully different from previous, non-binding pledges to address worker safety concerns.

"Walmart has been announcing unilateral programs in their supply chain in Bangladesh for many years," Nova said. "None of it has meant a thing in terms of genuine protections for workers. We're past the point where non-binding self-regulatory initiatives from Walmart is going to fool anyone."

"If they're serious, they'll sign this binding agreement," Nova added.

According to Walmart's statement, the company launched an "enhanced safety program" earlier this year, and it will begin posting the results of that program in June. Walmart has already posted a list of factories that have failed to meet its standards. "Walmart retained engineers and other trained professionals to perform these inspections at its own cost," the company noted.

"Transparency is vital to make progress in improving factory conditions, and by disclosing this information, government, workers, non-governmental agencies, and companies can benefit from this work,” Rajan Kamalanathan, the company's vice president of ethical sourcing, said in the statement. It wasn't clear whether published results stemming from the new inspections would include the reasons for any failures, or merely the names of the facilities Walmart would no longer do business with.

Walmart also said it plans to contract with the firm Bureau Veritas to develop fire-safety training for workers. Bureau Veritas operates in the sphere known as "social auditing," an industry that helps monitor overseas supply chains for companies like Walmart. Labor groups have questioned the independence and integrity of social auditing firms, noting that they derive much of their income from the very brands they scrutinize.

Worker advocates had hoped that large U.S. retailers would follow the lead of H&M, which on Monday was the first retailer to publicly declare its support for the binding accord. Finnegan, of the AFL-CIO, said he wasn't shocked to see the participation of European brands against the relative quiet of U.S. retailers.

"In Europe, there's a commitment to social dialogue," Finnegan said. "People don't think you can just say 'no' to unions and workers."

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