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How Walmart and Other Huge Companies Support Horrific Conditions That Kill Workers

Retailers look away as the Bangladeshi government stalks, batters and kills seamstresses and labor activists.

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[Primer Minister Shiekh] Hasina’s government has resisted expanding labor rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major political donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations. In Parliament, roughly two-thirds of the members belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total.

“Politics and business is so enmeshed that one is kin to the other,” said Iftekharuzzaman, director of Transparency International Bangladesh.“There is a coalition between the sector and people in positions of power. The negotiating position of the workers is very, very limited.”

In fact, when representatives from 12 Western retailers formally expressed concern last July about growing labor unrest, the government brushed off requests from the companies to address the workers’ wage demands, according to Yardley: 

“No reason to be worried,” Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, the minister, told reporters, noting that brands were not canceling orders.

With the system so rigged against workers, there’s no reason to believe the retailers and apparel brands who subcontract their manufacturing to factories in developing countries will adequately police themselves. That sort of self-policing scheme resulted in an even worse factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan, two months ago, when 300 workers at Ali Enterprises, another denim apparel manufacturer, died.

According to theInternational News, a Pakistani paper, the owners of Ali Enterprises “obtained a fake certificate from an audit company to satisfy the companies abroad that his factory met the required safety standards.”

The statement from the International Labor Rights Forum calls on Walmart to “join the comprehensive fire and building safety program with unions and labor rights groups that PVH (owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and German retailer Tchibo have already signed onto.” It continues: 

The program includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.

Given the current structure of the global economy, it’s difficult to see where that would be enough. To make this sort of compliance voluntary may be preferable to no compliance at all, but it’s hard to see how, without an international enforcement mechanism, greedy companies will find an incentive to stop exploiting the peoples of an oligarchic state such as Bangladesh.

Already, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Hasini is blaming the Tazreen fire on arsonists, calling it an act of sabotage, but declining to name a suspect or a motive. Bangladesh’s garment workers are already rightly fearful of false accusations, and this latest development does not bode well.

Adele M. Stan is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in covering the intersection of religion and politics. She is RH Reality Check's senior Washington correspondent.

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