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The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster killed more than 1,100 people. (Photo: Jaber Al Nahian/flickr/cc)

Walmart, Gap, H&M Called Out for Global Worker Exploitation and Abuse

Three years after Rana Plaza collapse, labor violations still rampant, reports find

Nadia PrupisDeirdre Fulton

Some of the world's biggest retailers, including Walmart, Gap, and H&M, have failed to improve workplace safety three years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 people and turned a spotlight on dangerous labor conditions faced by some of the world's poorest workers.

A series of new reports released Tuesday by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a coalition of rights groups and trade unions, finds that tens of thousands of laborers in Bangladesh are still making garments in buildings without proper fire exits, while pregnant workers in Indonesia and India face discrimination and wage theft.

"At this point, we do not see H&M working in a way that would prevent another Rana Plaza."
—Anannya Bhattacharjee, Asia Wage Floor Alliance

In Cambodia, workers who demanded an extra $20 a month were shot and killed.

Meanwhile, Walmart has continued to benefit from forced labor in more than a dozen of its supplier factories in India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, the report found. Workers described "harsh conditions with strict line leaders, tough supervisors and abusive management practices" including verbal abuse, threats, and denial of water breaks.

And due to a lack of transparency in the supply chain, Walmart has been able to evade accountability for many of its abusive practices, the report states.

Some progress among the various retailers has been made, such as structural repairs in several Bangladesh factories, but the delays in improving a vast quantity of conditions are "unacceptable," Workers Rights Consortium executive director Scott Nova told the New York Times.

That includes H&M, which was the first to sign the post-Rana Plaza international deal known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. An earlier report from the Wage Alliance found that the company's factories continue to allow wage theft, sexual harassment, and other workplace abuses in its factories. And many of those buildings have yet to be fitted with proper fire exits, the report (pdf) found.

Anannya Bhattacharjee, the international coordinator for the Wage Alliance, told the Times, "At this point, we do not see H&M working in a way that would prevent another Rana Plaza."

Nova added, "It's so grossly irresponsible to put thousands of workers into a building that doesn't have [fire exits]."

Meanwhile, Gap factories continue to force laborers to put in more than 100 hours a week for poverty wages, the report states.

The reports from a global coalition of trade unions, worker rights, and human rights organizations—including Asia Floor Wage Alliance, Jobs with Justice, National Guestworker Alliance, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the Clean Clothes Campaign—were released to coincide with the International Labour Organization's (ILO) annual conference, taking place over the next 10 days in Geneva.

The reports expose wide-ranging exploitation and abuse across the seafood and garment sectors, and across the global supply chain as a whole.

"With these reports, which detail specific recommendations to improve working conditions worldwide including specific outlines for a cross-border living wage, the coalition is working to push the ILO to move forward with setting global standards for supply chains that include wage protections, freedom of association and freedom of migration," according to the groups.

Whereas "[c]orporate and multi-stakeholder 'corporate social responsibility' schemes have had little if any positive impact on guaranteeing workers’ rights," International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow wrote on Tuesday, "[a]n ILO convention on decent work in global supply chains can and should form the backbone of any new approach to labour regulation and enforcement at the international level."

A separate report released Tuesday by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation found that close to 46 million men, women, and children are enslaved across the world, many of them providing "the low-cost labor that produces consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America, and Australia."


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