by Laura Clawson
Walmart CEO Michael Duke recently had this to say to the Council on Foreign Relations:
“We will not buy from an unsafe factory,” Mr. Duke told the audience. “If a factory is not going to operate with high standards, then we would not purchase from that factory.”
There’s one huge problem with that: It’s not true. Walmart demonstrably does buy from unsafe factories, it’s just that when things go wrong it tries to deny that it knew it was buying from them. And its entire system of supposedly monitoring and preventing unsafe conditions is a sham, as Steven Greenhouse and Jim Yardley detail. At the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh where more than 100 workers died in a November fire:
Two Walmart-sponsored inspections in 2011, along with a third monitoring report in April 2012, revealed recurring violations, with the first Walmart audit report, containing a warning from a Walmart official, giving the factory an “orange,” or high risk, assessment. Under Walmart’s rules, such factories are to be reinspected within six months, and are disqualified only after failing three audits within two years — raising the possibility that workers remain exposed a year or more to serious dangers before a factory is dropped.
So they found there were serious problems, dangerous problems that could take lives. And then they found problems again, and again. But the factory’s owners knew that the first and second findings of safety violations wouldn’t cause the loss of any Walmart business. And, hey, since in September, months after Walmart claims it stopped doing business with the factory altogether, more than half of its capacity was still dedicated to Walmart clothes, the factory’s owners really knew they had nothing to worry about at all.
We’re talking about having less than half as many fire extinguishers as needed, entire floors without fire alarms, smoke detectors missing from rooms filled with highly flammable materials, and exit doors that opened inward. Oh, and some of the biggest safety measures needed weren’t even part of the inspections:
Sajeev Jesudas, president of UL Verification Services, whose company conducted the daylong December inspection, said it did not consider itself responsible for inspecting for fire escapes or enclosed stairways. “That’s the responsibility of the local building code inspector,” he said in an interview. “We don’t have jurisdiction to inspect the building code.”
Basically, safety inspections are just one more part of Walmart’s elaborate system for passing the buck and denying responsibility for the manufacture and transport of its goods. Walmart contracts for the goods to be made, the contractor in turn hires a factory like Tazreen and hires another company to audit the factory, and when things go wrong, Walmart says, “don’t blame us, it was those guys.” But where safety is always negotiable, where violations can be kicked down the road for a year or more before Walmart even pretends to stop doing business with a death trap of a factory, Walmart actually does exercise the tightest possible control over costs. And Walmart has said in no uncertain terms it won’t pay enough for suppliers to make needed safety improvements.
Walmart’s CEO says, “We will not buy from an unsafe factory,” but Walmart’s behavior makes it crystal clear that that is a flat-out, brazen lie.
Laura Clawson is labor editor for Daily Kos, where this post first appeared.