Last week, a fire tore through a garment factory in Bangladesh. With the emergency exits locked, hundreds of workers — mostly women — were trapped inside the nine-story factory. 112 people were killed.
And in the ashes of the fire, a local community leader discovered the burned labels of Walmart-brand clothes.
Walmart is claiming it has no responsibility for the deaths, even though it was purchasing garments made in the very factory that burned down. Worse, Walmart knew the risk to workers. Inspectors working for Walmart gave the factory “high risk” and “medium risk” safety ratings just last year, and this year’s follow-up report was never performed.
In the wake of this disaster, Bangladeshi garment workers are taking to the streets. They are demanding that brands take responsibility for fire safety conditions in factories. Walmart has a key role to play in meeting the workers’ demand for a safe workplace, and we can join together to demand that Walmart act.
Walmart is the largest retailer in the world, and the largest buyer in Bangladesh. If Walmart joined the fire safety inspection program already adopted by PVH (owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and German retailer Tchibo to ensure that all its suppliers enforced basic safety regulations — and then worked with suppliers to ensure that they were followed — it could raise the standard for working conditions across Bangladesh, and, in the process, prevent the potential injury or death of thousands of workers.
Or Walmart could brush this off as nothing more than a minor PR disaster. The company — which said it ended its relationship with this supplier over the tragedy — could simply move on to the next rock-bottom supplier, and the next, leaving more tragedy in its wake.
But Walmart is nothing without its customers and potential customers. That’s why it is up to us, using our power as citizen-consumers, to pressure Walmart to change and force improvements in Bangladesh.
Just over 100 years ago, a nearly identical story played out in New York City, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. A fire broke out, and in the chaos, the workers found all the exits to be locked. 146 people, mostly immigrant women, died that day.
In the wake of that tragedy, citizens rallied together and forced factory owners to adopt important safety guidelines to protect workers. Let’s band together now to make sure real change comes out of last week’s disaster, by pressing Walmart to protect workers throughout its supply chain.
- Claiborne, Kaytee, Paul and the rest of us