In the wake of the worst garment factory tragedy in world history, which left over 1,200 dead in Bangladesh last month, a number of Western brands have signed an agreement to improve working conditions in their subcontracted factories there. Walmart was missing from the list of signatories.
The legally binding agreement, signed by retailers including H&M, Primark, C&A, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Zara, Tesco and others, "aims to compel retailers to pay for rigorous and independent public inspections and blacklist any factories unwilling to comply," the Guardian reports.
The agreement covers "independent safety inspections with public reports, mandatory repairs and renovations and a vital role for workers and their unions," The Ethical Trading Initiative, which crafted the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh along with trade unions IndustriALL and UNI Global, writes.
"At the heart of the agreement is the commitment to Bangladesh’s Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety, and for companies to share in the responsibilities for providing a safe environment for workers."
Instead, however, Walmart refused to sign, saying that it has created its own agreement (of which it is the only party). The agreement claims that Walmart will conduct its own inspections of the 279 factories it uses in Bangladesh within six months.
As the Guardian reports, "the Walmart deal is not legally binding, does not require the company to offer financial support for fire and safety regulations or blacklist factories unwilling to comply."
Sam Maher from Labor Behind the Label, said: "Walmart's so-called new program is simply more of the same ineffective auditing that failed to prevent the Rana Plaza disaster, or the deaths of 112 workers at Tazreen, who were producing Walmart goods."
In contrast, "The changes demanded by the IndustriALL accord include ensuring that factories are provided with the incentives and investment needed to actually make factories safe and are essential for any real change to occur," Maher added. "What Walmart [is] demanding is business as usual: a business that has cost lives of over 1,300 workers in the last six months alone."
This, of course, is not the first time Walmart has refused to improve the well being of workers in factories.
In 2011, several major western retailers, lead by Walmart, rejected a proposal made by a group of Bangladeshi and international unions that proposed a way to make Bangladesh's garment factories safer through establishing an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh "with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions."
At the time, Walmart's representative said it was "not financially feasible ... to make such investments."
The inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year and the annual $1 trillion such retailers make per year in the global garment industry.
Several other retailers have declined to sign this week's agreement, including River Island, Matalan and Peacocks.