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Walmart, Like Lance Armstrong, Seeks Redemption Without Remorse

There's good reason to greet the company's latest make-nice move with a dose of skepticism.

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Oddly, the top international cyclist -- Lance Armstrong -- and the top international retailer -- Walmart -- revealed last week that they have much in common.

No, not doping.

It's their dopey concept of the atonement process.

Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he'd denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn't apologize. He didn't follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Walmart didn't follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Walmart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Walmart.

But, like Armstrong's admission, Walmart's announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy,  The Atlantic wrote of the Walmart promise. A public relations stunt,  Time wrote.

Walmart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.

Let's start in Bangladesh. There, Walmart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world --  $37 a month. But that's not enough. Walmart -- and other garment purchasers -- demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.

After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Walmart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Walmart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.

Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards.  The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Walmart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire,  the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Walmart suppliers.

A month after the fatal fire, a Walmart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn't offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Walmart executive has admitted the industry's safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.

Now, let's go to Mexico. There, Walmart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted -- mostly permits to locate Walmart stores,  according to a massive  New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Walmart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab  wrote last December:

Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance . . .It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.

After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Walmart  briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Walmart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

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