By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
The other night I was watching television and a commercial came on. It was from Walmart and it was attempting to convey what a wonderful company they would like us to believe that they are. I went running to the rest room.
In April of this year, a building (Rana Plaza) collapsed in Bangladesh. It was a building containing garment factories. There had been evidence that this building was in danger of collapsing but the factory owners insisted that the workers go to work or face termination. More than 1,100 workers perished when the building imploded.
Disasters such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh are far from unusual. In November 2012, a factory fire resulted in the deaths of 112 workers. Instead of swift action being taken to address the conditions under which the workers labor, the owners are regularly given a pass by a Bangladeshi government in the pockets of the garment industry executives. Workers who protest are regularly fired or worse. Extra-judicial intimidation and killings are used against union organizers and, for that matter, any worker who stands their ground.
Did I forget to mention that these are the factories that produce for markets in the USA? Did I also forget to mention that Walmart is largely founded on its relationship with these contractors? Along with other major retailers, they insist on low cost and quick movement, regardless of the impact on the workers.
In the aftermath of the Bangladesh disasters an effort was undertaken to create what is known as “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.” This agreement, to which 17 companies (largely from Europe) are signatories, represents a commitment to a legally-binding safety program for workers in the Bangladesh garment industry. Guess the name of one of the companies that chose not to sign on? Yes, you are correct: Walmart.
What was striking was that Walmart and several other U.S.-based companies suggested that such an agreement was unnecessary and that they would take independent—and non-legally binding—steps to ensure safety. This is from the same company that offered up this syrupy commercial about how compassionate they are. Why should we believe Walmart? If they took no steps prior to the disasters and now do not wish to be a party to a legally binding agreement on safety for the workers, why should anyone believe that they are going to act differently?
The answer is simple: you shouldn’t.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.