Wal-Mart’s connection to firetrap Bangladesh factory

UPDATE: The retailer stopped working with 50 fire risk factories, but photos show Wal-Mart clothes in fire wreckage

Topics: Factory, Factory fire, Bangladesh, Fire, Workers' Rights, Target, Wal-Mart, Sweat shop,

UPDATED BELOW: Photos appear to reveal Wal-Mart brand garments in the factory where a fire killed 112 on the weekend.

Wal-Mart conducted a review last year of the Bangladeshi factory in which a fire on Saturday led to the death of 112 people. Despite the retailer determining the factory to be a high fire risk last year, Wal-Mart said this week that  it did not know whether it was still buying products made in the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. plant, where there were no emergency exits and workers were forced to jump out of windows to escape from the blaze.

As the AP reported:

Tazreen was given a “high risk” safety rating after a May 16, 2011, audit conducted by an “ethical sourcing” assessor for Wal-Mart, according to a document posted on the Tuba Group’s website. It did not specify what led to the rating.

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said online documents indicating an orange or “high risk” assessment after the May 2011 inspection and a yellow or “medium risk” report after an inspection in August 2011 appeared to pertain to the factory.

The August 2011 letter said Wal-Mart would conduct another inspection within one year.

Gardner said it was not clear if that inspection had been conducted or whether the factory was still making products for Wal-Mart.

In their Sunday statement Wal-Mart stressed that it was taking measures to improve fire safety in the Bangladesh apparel industry and has already stopped working with 50 Bangladeshi factories in recent months.

The retail giant is not the only U.S. company linked to deadly factory fires in Bangladesh. In December 2010, the Wall Street Journal noted, a fire at a factory that supplied to companies including J.C. Penney Co. and Gap Inc. killed 29 people. The WSJ reported that Saturday’s factory fire — believed to be caused by a short circuit — took place in a plant which manufactured clothing for Hong Kong-based sourcing giant Li & Fung, which is a buyer for retailers Target Corp. as well as Wal-Mart.

Thousands of workers and their supporters in Bangladesh have taken to the streets with rage following the blaze, as the WSJ reported, “Workers demanding justice were blocking the streets of a Dhaka suburb in a protest that turned violent at times. The workers threw stones at factories, smashed vehicles and blocked a major highway in the area, according to garment workers’ groups.”

Agence France-Presse added that in response to the demonstrations, “Ashulia’s more than 500 factories who make apparel for top global retailers such as Walmart, H&M and Tesco declared a wild-cat ‘holiday”, fearing that the protests could worsen and turn into large-scale unrest.”

However, according to the WSJ, the deadly fire and the following protests likely won’t have a significant impact on Li & Fung’s sourcing businesses. “With a sizable sourcing network, Li & Fung can swiftly source the goods that it needs from other factories for its clients,” Kenny Tang, general manager at asset management company AMTD Financial Planning Ltd told the WSJ.

Bangladesh has some 4,000 garment factories, many without proper safety measures.

UPDATE: Despite Wal-Mart’s claim that it did not know whether it was still buying garments made at the Tazreen plant, the Nation’s Josh Eidelson Monday was provided with photographs from the fire’s wreckage which appear to show clothing with Wal-Mart’s exclusive Faded Glory label in the factory. The photos were taken after the fire by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and were provided to the Nation by the International Labor Rights Forum.

According to Workers Rights Consortium executive director Scott Nova, Wal-Mart’s culpability in the fire goes beyond the presence of their garments in the factory. The retailer’s business model, Nova told Eidelson, created the conditions for tragedy:

Wal-Mart’s “culpability is enormous. First of all they are the largest buyer from Bangladesh” and so “they make the market.” Nova said Bangladesh has become the world’s second largest apparel supplier “because they’ve given Walmart and its competitors what they want, which is the cheapest possible labor costs.”

“So Wal-Mart is supporting, is incentivizing, an industry strategy in Bangladesh: extreme low wages, non-existent regulation, brutal suppression of any attempt by workers to act collectively to improve wages and conditions.”

Images appear to show Faded Glory garments, via the Nation:

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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