December 6, 2012
Documents Indicate Walmart Blocked Safety Push in Bangladesh
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Documents found at the Tazreen apparel factory in Bangladesh, where 112 workers died in a fire nearly two weeks ago, indicate that three American garment companies were using the factory during the past year to supply goods to Walmart and its Sam’s Club subsidiary.
The documents — photographed by a Bangladeshi labor organizer after the fire and made available to The New York Times — include an internal production report from mid-September showing that 5 of the factory’s 14 production lines were devoted to making apparel for Walmart.
In a related matter, two officials who attended a meeting held in Bangladesh in 2011 to discuss factory safety in the garment industry said on Wednesday that the Walmart official there played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety.
Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group based in Amsterdam, said Walmart was the company that “most strongly advocated this position.”
The meeting was held in April 2011 in Dhaka, the country’s capital, and brought together global retailers, Bangladeshi factory owners, government officials and nongovernment organizations after several apparel factory fires in Bangladesh had killed dozens of workers the previous winter.
According to the minutes of the meeting, which were made available to The Times, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Walmart director of ethical sourcing, along with an official from another major apparel retailer, noted that the proposed improvements in electrical and fire safety would involve as many as 4,500 factories and would be “in most cases” a “very extensive and costly modification.”
“It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments,” the minutes said.
Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, said the company official’s remarks in Bangladesh were “out of context.”
“Walmart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers,” he said, adding that the company has helped develop and establish programs to increase fire prevention.
Ms. Zeldenrust said, “Everyone recognized that fire safety was a serious problem and it was a high time to act on it, and Walmart’s position had a very negative impact.” She added, “It gives manufacturers the excuse they’re looking for to say, ‘We’re not to blame.’ ”
Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory monitoring group based in Washington, was also at the meeting. He said that upgrading the factories’ safety would cost a small fraction of what Walmart and other retailers pay for the clothing they import from Bangladesh each year.
Bloomberg News first reported details of the Dhaka meeting on Wednesday.
Walmart has indirectly acknowledged that the factory, Tazreen Fashions, outside Dhaka, was producing some of its apparel, saying in a statement that a supplier had “subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.” In that statement, issued two days after the Nov. 24 fire, Walmart said, “We have terminated the relationship with that supplier.” Walmart has declined to name the supplier.
After Walmart was shown some of the documents from the factory on Wednesday, Mr. Gardner replied in an e-mail. “As we’ve said, the Tazreen factory was de-authorized months ago,” he wrote. “We don’t comment on specific supplier relationships.”
The photographed documents from the factory indicate that three suppliers — the International Direct Group, Success Apparel and Topson Downs — used the factory to make shirts, shorts and pajamas for Walmart. One document, written in July, provides product descriptions from Success Apparel for Walmart’s Faded Glory house-brand shorts. A photo taken inside the factory after the fire showed a pair of Faded Glory shorts.
The documents indicate that Success Apparel often worked through Simco, a Bangladeshi garment maker.
Mr. Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium said the documents raised questions about Walmart’s statements after the fire.
“It was not a single rogue supplier as Walmart has claimed — there were several different U.S. suppliers working for Walmart in that factory,” Mr. Nova said. “It stretches credulity to think that Walmart, famous for its tight control over its global supply chain, didn’t know about this.”
Mr. Nova works closely with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and made the factory documents available.
Investigators also found apparel made for Sears and Disney inside the factory after the fire. Both companies said suppliers had given orders to the factory without their knowledge and authorization.
Mr. Gardner said accredited outside auditors had periodically inspected the factory on Walmart’s behalf. A May 2011 audit gave the factory an “orange” rating, meaning that there were “higher-risk violations” and that it would be re-audited within six months. If a factory gets three orange ratings over two years, it loses Walmart’s approval.
A follow-up audit in August 2011 for Walmart gave Tazreen an improved “yellow” rating, meaning “medium-risk violations.”