(Changes company spelling to Wal-Mart from Walmart in lead and
By Jessica Wohl
May 15 Wal-Mart Stores Inc stepped up
Bangladesh factory inspections while U.S. and European retailers
pursued separate accords to try to prevent another disaster in a
garment industry where more than 1,200 workers have died in the
past six months.
Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, said it does not
plan to sign a fire and building safety agreement backed by some
of Europe's biggest apparel brands because it believes its own
safety inspection plans will get faster results.
Wednesday is the deadline for retailers to decide whether to
join the consortium, led by labour groups such as Europe's
Other U.S. retailers including Gap Inc said they
would not join the European pact without changes in the way
conflicts are resolved in the courts. U.S. companies have been
reluctant to join any industry accord that creates legally
"Wal-Mart believes its safety plan meets or exceeds the
IndustriALL proposal, and will get results more quickly," the
U.S. retailer said in a statement on Tuesday.
Wal-Mart has begun checking the 279 factories that supply
its stores, and plans to inspect them all within six months. Its
checks have already turned up two locations with safety problems
and it asked the Bangladesh government to suspend production at
In Chittagong, about 250 kms (15 miles) from Bangladesh's
capital Dhaka, workers at one factory that Wal-Mart wants closed
said they were unaware of any safety concerns and business was
proceeding as usual. Company officials at Stitch Tone Garments
Ltd said they were no longer making clothes for Wal-Mart, but
did not say who they were currently supplying.
"We don't know about the problems of our owners. We don't
know about the risk of building. We are working for our
livelihood. If we stop the work, we cannot survive," said one of
the workers, Parvin Akter.
The minimum wage for Bangladesh's garment workers is about
$38 a month, although many factories pay more than that in order
to attract workers in a tight labour market. Bangladesh ranked
last in minimum wages for factory workers in 2010, according to
World Bank data.
The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar, near Dhaka,
has focused attention on safety standards at Bangladesh
factories that make clothing for the world's major apparel
brands and retailers. The death toll stood at 1,127 as rescue
operations ended this week.
But the companies that rely on Bangladesh for inexpensive
apparel have yet to agree on how best to ensure safe working
conditions. Wal-Mart's approach may be faster, but touches only
a fraction of Bangladesh's estimated 6,500 garment factories.
The European-led accord will take months to implement, but
covers a wider spectrum.
North American retailers discussed forging their own
Bangladesh safety agreement as an alternative to Europe's plan,
though details were sparse.
The National Retail Federation, one of the largest U.S.
retail trade associations, spoke on Tuesday with other trade
groups and with its member companies about a possible accord
among North American retailers. Details from those calls were
not yet available.
Despite the differences between U.S. and European companies,
the fact that the world's biggest retailers were ready to act
shows how the latest tragedy has begun to bring about change.
In Dhaka, the government has inspected and closed more than
a dozen garment factories because of structural problems.
Workers have also begun to demand greater safety and labour
rights protections. Earlier this week, worker unrest prompted
authorities to shut more 300 garment factories for indefinite
periods in the Ashulia industrial belt, on the outskirts of
Dhaka, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of total exports.
Garments make up about 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports,
so the government is keen to ensure business continues as usual.
With wages less than half of what workers make in China, Western
retailers are just as eager to keep sourcing from Bangladesh.
But some workers doubt that change will come any time soon.
Mominur Rahman, who damaged his spine jumping from the third
floor to escape the deadly fire that ripped through the Tazreen
factory in November, said working conditions remain tough.
"We need to work collectively: workers, factory owners and
the government, to see improvement," he said through an
interpreter at a workplace safety conference in Thailand last
week. "The factory inspection system in Bangladesh needs to be
increased and improved. I never saw a factory inspection at the
Tazreen factory, not once. Same with the Savar tragedy, nothing
will change immediately."
(Additional reporting by Nazimuddin Shyamol in Chittagong,
Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago, Phil Wahba and Jennifer Saba
in New York, Susan Taylor in Toronto, and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in
Bangkok; Writing by Emily Kaiser; Editing by Michael Perry)