THE BLOG
07/15/2013 03:18 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2013

Will Walmart Finally Do the Right Thing?

Will Wal-Mart and the Gap actually commit to protecting their garment factory workers' lives giving the precedent they have set?

After months of dragging their feet following the Rana Plaza collapse, Wal-Mart and the Gap have finally announced a plan to promote new safety measures alongside other major U.S. retail corporations. This comes as long anticipated news after both companies balked at signing the international factory safety accord that major European retailers and other mega U.S. corporations joined quickly following the May collapse, citing liability concerns.

Many groups have expressed concern about how effective the measures will actually be, given that the alliance has shunned an accord with their European counterparts and has not involved any labor unions. Bangladeshi labor unions have called the plan "superficial" and "a sham." Unlike their European counterparts' agreement, the North American one is not legally binding. AFL-CIO released a statement saying, "Rather than sign the binding Accord, Walmart and the Gap are pushing a weak and worthless plan that avoids enforceable commitments."

This is one of many times Wal-Mart and the Gap has proposed to do their own audits of Bangladesh factory conditions. Yet just days later Wal-Mart was caught importing manufacturing goods from factories it had supposedly condemned for repeated safety violations, demonstrating that it does not maintain the amount of oversight necessary when running a multi-billion dollar company. And as The New York Times reported last week, factories that still produce garments for the corporations were found to remain in extremely hazardous conditions, with factories employing over 1,000 workers at times standing on nothing more than temporary cast iron pillars.

I am always wary of the GOP favored "trust business" model over increased government regulation. Just five days after the West, Texas, factory explosion -- a result of gross corporate negligence -- Governor Rick Perry was in Illinois touting Texas' almost complete lack of corporate regulation, therefore promoting an approach that is sure to result in more deaths.

Why doesn't our government stop protecting Wal-Mart and refuse to import its products until it has demonstrated a true commitment to protecting their overseas workers?
President Obama suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh following the factory collapse. But U.S. corporations that have grown incredibly wealthy off of Bangladesh's low production costs should be held equally, if not more, accountable as the Bangladesh government by the U.S. government.

Up to 80 percent of its employees are on food stamps and a significant proportion are dependent on Medicaid and subsidized housing. With Republican congressmen attempting to slash away at food stamp funding, how will Wal-Mart workers survive if the corporation maintains ruthless practices at home? Although our government mostly turns a blind eye to massive corporate abuse, the state of California is stepping up to the plate by proposing to fine Wal-Mart for each of their employees that ends up on California's Medicaid program.

It does not seem to be a good indication of Wal-Mart's commitment to its workers that while promising to improve conditions overseas it is simultaneously threatening to pull out of opening stores in Washington, D.C., if it means paying workers an average of $12.50 an hour.

Costco pays its employees $20.89 an hour yet remains a hugely successful company. Wal-Mart's CEO earned $14.4 million more in 2012 than Costco's. Therefore, the company could largely afford to D.C. employees a living wage in one of our nation's poorest cities, even if this becomes the corporation's nationwide standard (which hopefully it will). D.C. Mayor Gray is about to decide whether to give in to Wal-Mart or insist that D.C.'s workers deserve better. I hope that he will realize that another Wal-Mart is about the last thing D.C. workers (or any other of the word's workers, for that matter) need.

Meanwhile President Obama, who once famously said that he refused to shop at Wal-Mart, recently tapped Walmart's Sylvia Mathews Burwell as his new Director of Management and Budget. This is repulsive given Wal-Mart's management style. And the Wal-Mart Foundation? With the Foundation and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton having built a $1.2 billion museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, maybe some of that money could have gone toward preventing all of these deaths instead of buying O'Keefes and Warhols?

And not that I trust Hollywood to always show the best judgment when it comes to human rights abuses (see J. Lo in Turkmenistan), but just days after the devastating factory collapse, Hugh Jackman, Kelly Clarkson, and Jennifer Hudson preformed at the Wal-Mart shareholders meeting. Tom Cruise attended as well, announcing, "I truly admire your company. [It's] a role model for how business can address some of the biggest issues facing our world." That was a really thoughtful, beautiful thing for Cruise to have said about a company whose negligence directly contributed to the deaths of over 1,100 Bangladeshis through their negligence. Cruise also claimed that Wal-Mart has "helped women around the world"; 85 percent of Rana Plaza victims were women. It is not enough that through Wal-Mart these women were employed in 14-hour-per-day, 86-degree sweatshop conditions; they should also be able to go to work without risking their lives.

While it is encouraging that Wal-Mart, the Gap, and other U.S. realtors that source from Bangladesh have finally declared a new commitment towards improving the safety of Bangladeshi factory workers, let's hope that these companies will actually abandon their previous race to the bottom labor practices in favor of protecting human lives. improving the safety of Bangladeshi factory workers, let's hope that these companies will actually abandon their previous race to the bottom labor practices in favor of protecting human lives. Wal-Mart and the Gap balked at signing the legally binding agreement signed by H&M, etc., because they are worried about being open to litigation. If they do not hold true to their said commitments, these companies should face litigation in addition to receiving U.S. government import bans and being shunned by U.S. consumers, who should instead shop at H&M and other responsible corporations until they do so.