Will Walmart’s fire safety initiative save lives?

By International Labor Rights Forum

Walmart-tazreenFollowing exposure
in the media that at least two Walmart suppliers were using the Tazreen
Fashions factory, Walmart
recently announced a Zero Tolerance
Policy and Ethical Sourcing Program Enhancements
. The company committed to a policy of "zero tolerance" for suppliers that use unauthorized subcontractors, has
promised to terminate suppliers who subcontract to unauthorized factories not
authorized by Walmart, and to publish a list on its website of factories not
authorized to manufacture goods for Walmart. In an effort to increase workplace safety, Walmart
implemented a ban on factories in multi-use buildings in Bangladesh and promised
that facilities found to have violated safety regulations must take corrective
actions within thirty days. Furthermore, the new regulations require all
factories to have an electrical
and building safety assessment by an independent, certified agency, all barred
windows to have an emergency mechanism to allow for escape, all floors and
buildings to have a secondary exit, and all factories to have proper access for
fire trucks and firefighting equipment. To fund the
program, Walmart is “considering” participating in a revolving fund that would
provide loans to Bangladeshi factory owners.         

This is
the most substantive and detailed material that Walmart has released on this
issue to date. It recognizes the need for dedicated fire and electrical safety
inspections, some form of financial assistance to factories, and the need for
an expedited timeline for addressing fire safety violations. However, it does
little more than that: missing in Walmart’s program are most of the key elements
of the labor-supported Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, specifically:

  • Transparency. Walmart’s new policy on
    auditing and subcontractors lacks any kind of transparency that might ensure
    its effectiveness. Walmart has not agreed to publicly disclose its
    supplier factories, only to post the names of factories that have been dropped
    for noncompliance.
    Complete transparency regarding all supplier factories is essential for independent
    monitoring. There will be no way for an independent party to access the
    findings of inspection reports, nor will workers have a way to hear the
  • Walmart’s
    new policy does not include any reference to a role for workers and unions
    . Any
    effective monitoring policy must have at its heart a central role for workers
    and their unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and
    access to factories for unions to educate workers on how they can protect their
    rights and safety, including their right to refuse unsafe work.
  • Lack
    of a binding contract
    . Walmart’s new policy does not include a binding
    contract between the brands and worker representatives to make company
    commitments enforceable. As it stands, Walmart does not promise to stand by the
    factories in order to ensure factories are able to make changes or to work with
    independent stakeholders to ensure workers’ welfare during repairs or in cases
    where a particular factory’s refusal to change merits that Walmart discontinue
    business with them.
  • Absence
    of any price commitments
    . The new policy does not ensure
    sufficient financing and adequate pricing so that contractors could cover the
    cost of eliminating deadly hazards and operating in a safe manner. Walmart said
    it is “looking into” a loan program, but does not agree to provide prices to
    factories sufficient for them to have the financial wherewithal to maintain
    safe workplaces.
  • Insufficient
    safety requirements
    .  The new policy does not
    explicitly require fireproof staircases or external fire escapes in multistory
    factories, which was a reason so many workers died at Tazreen
    Walmart states that external fire escape routes are
    merely “preferable,” even though it is very specific about a number of other
    requirements, for example removable window bars.

A meaningful fire safety
program would require independent inspections by trained fire safety experts
not controlled by the brands or the factories being inspected, and public
reporting of the results of all inspections. Walmart needs to re-evaluate its
purchasing practices and prices so its demands are not putting excessive
pressure on factories to cut corners on safety. It also needs to provide better
technical assistance training for factories so they can run their businesses

Considering the policy's shortcomings, we wonder whether the new policy is more an attempt to avoid a
public-relations catastrophe, rather than an expression of genuine concern for
the rights and welfare of the workers who sew clothing for Walmart.