Why Are Sears and Wal-Mart Ignoring These Petitioners?


The blaze that swept through a Bangladesh garment factory in November of last year killed at least 112 people, injured approximately 200 others, and sent workers jumping out of the multistory building. In the charred ruins of the Tazreen factory, the remains of clothing bound for Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD) was discovered.

After fires swept through two factories that sewed ready-made garments in three days, thousands took to the streets to protest violations such as locked doors and lack of fire escapes. These protests put a spotlight on the poor working conditions in the world’s second largest garment-exporting country and increased pressure on Western retailers like Wal-Mart to help improve conditions and take more direct responsibility for their suppliers.

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But both Wal-Mart and Sears have declined to join other companies in voluntarily compensating victims of the fire, reported Bloomberg. They also did not respond to an invitation to attend a meeting scheduled for April 15 in Geneva, where companies whose clothing was manufactured at the Tazreen Design Ltd. factory will gather to discuss the compensation payments.

The two companies have said that suppliers used the Tazreen factory without their permission and were subsequently fired. While the suppliers were not supposed to contract with the facility, as its owners had previously violated working condition standards, neither company employs the workers in Bangladesh directly, and therefore, they are not legally obligated to compensate them…

As labor-rights activists told the publication, more than 700 workers have died at Bangladeshi factories since 2005.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington-based international labor-monitoring group, told Bloomberg that the compensation payments would go the families of the workers who died in last year’s fire and those that were injured.

However, in a statement emailed to the publication, Sears spokesman Howard Riefs wrote that the company has no plans to attend the meeting in Geneva. “As part of our ongoing efforts, we are continuing to actively train our suppliers on factory and fire safety as part of our Global Compliance Program,” he added. Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner declined to answer Bloomberg’s questions about plans for the meeting or victim compensation.

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“At Walmart, our goal is to positively impact global supply chain practices by raising our own standards and by partnering with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry,” Gardner wrote in an e-mailed statement. “Walmart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers. We have been actively developing and implementing proactive programs to raise fire safety awareness and increase fire prevention.”

On April 9, Wal-Mart announced it would donate $1.6 million to the Institute of Sustainable Communities in order to established the Environment, Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh, which will offer safety training to Bangladesh apparel manufacturers, according to a Wal-Mart press release.

Following the fire, on April 12, Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin and Akter delivered a petition Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas asking the company to attend the Geneva meeting and improve worker safety. Akter, also a survivor of a 1990 factory fire, has made other efforts to improve conditions, pushing for Wal-Mart to publish its factory audit reports at the retailer’s 2011 annual shareholder meeting.

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So far, their petition has received more than 112,000 signatures worldwide, as watchdog group Corporate Action Network told the publication. In particular, the workers-rights advocates are asking companies to sign a contractually enforceable memorandum that will require them to pay Bangladesh factories enough to cover the costs of safety improvements. According to Bloomberg, PVH Corp (NYSE:PVH) — the parent company of the Tommy Hilfiger brand — and the German retailer Tchibo have signed the agreement, but it cannot take effect until four major retailers sign.

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