WalMart’s Tears for a Tragedy

Exclusive: On Saturday, a fire swept through a garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing some 120 workers trapped behind locked doors. WalMart, one of the factory’s clothes buyers, quickly distanced itself from the tragedy, but WalMart’s profiting from sweatshops is a long-term pattern, writes Barbara Koeppel.

By Barbara Koeppel

WalMart. STOP, PLEASE. It’s hard to hear how “troubled” you are, as you claimed on Monday, about the fire at the Tazreen factory that sewed your clothes. Or that the factory was “no longer authorized” to produce your merchandise. Or that you will “continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”

This has to be hogwash from a company known for its tight control over production and prices. Or one that pushes its suppliers to the last penny (or the taka, in Bangladesh).

A WalMart store in Laredo, Texas. (Photograph by Jared C. Benedict)

So another 120 workers, mostly women, who earn 20 cents an hour died last Saturday in a building where 1,000 worked and the fire extinguishers didn’t, and exits were locked.

WalMart, surely you dissemble. Just as in 1991, when you contracted with the Saraka garment factory in Dhaka to make your clothes, only one year after the plant had a fire killing 25 children, well covered in the news.

As I reported at in April 2008, an NBC account said the child workers were locked in the factory until they finished each day’s production. Then as now, WalMart, you claimed ignorance.

Which brings us to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sat on Walmart’s Board of Directors at that time. On Monday, the Secretary lectured that “the history of labor rights and unions in any developing society is always difficult” and that “there are strong forces that oppose workers being organized.” With keen insight, she even observed “we had this in my own country.”

And well she knows, having sat on the WalMart board for six years and precisely at the time the Saraka contract was approved. The company, until today, has successfully battled unions. Could she have WalMart’s history in mind?

Which next brings us to Fox Business pundit Charles Payne, who predicted on Monday that “I don’t think something like this will happen again.”  Apparently he was unaware that since 2006, 600 Bangladesh garment factory workers have died in fires. Or that another fire destroyed a garment factory the very same day he spoke just two days after the Tazreen blaze. Fortunately, no one died.

Lest some of Payne’s audience have qualms, he assured them that people in Bangladesh want and need these jobs from WalMart, Gap and other U.S. and European firms. Extending his logic, this must mean the families of those killed will be happy to get the $1,250 the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has just offered.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted that the Walton family (Walmart’s heirs) has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. Well, he was a tad off: According to the Economic Policy Institute, it rose to 41.5 percent in 2010 (when the Waltons’ total wealth had climbed to $895 billion)

WalMart, can’t you spare a few more dimes for the Bangadeshi  heirs?

Perhaps Payne was also unaware of a mid-1990s poll of garment workers in the small island paradise of Mauritius, due south of Bangladesh which became a sweatshop haven. It found the women surveyed, who slept on the floor during their half-hour lunch break, said they couldn’t work past the age of 35. Why? Because they wanted to retire and enjoy life? Well, no. They were so exhausted they couldn’t imagine working any longer.

The fact is sweatshops are alive and well and thriving. To satisfy international lenders and garment factory investors, Mauritius banned the union and workers from striking. Despite this, the union and women launched an action and were hauled off to jail. Their offense? They wanted another 25 cents a day.

Secretary Clinton got her labor history right. It will take a long time. Just how long? If WalMart’s record is any indication, very long.

Until then, Asia’s garment workers can look to more fires and deaths and $27 a month paychecks.

Barbara Koeppel is a free-lance investigative reporter based in Washington DC.

4 comments for “WalMart’s Tears for a Tragedy

  1. jack
    November 30, 2012 at 19:25

    This incident exposes the true nature of the global economy as one very large con job where it is only trans-national corporations who see any real economic return from the
    off shoring of jobs in that system the ideologues call “free trade”.

    It is bad enough a couple of million high wage skilled jobs like appliance manufacturing and auto parts just to name a few, were sent to Mexico and China. Honest sources who talk in plain English, not the corporate P.R. speak common in the Washington D.C. Beltway will tell you the United States has lost 700,000 manufacturing jobs to Mexico alone because of NAFTA over the last 25 odd years. You see in Mexico is well know if you try to organize a real union and try to stand up for your human rights one ends up dead in an ally, and it is always blamed on the drug war.

    If Americans had an honest media that had a hint of due diligence and then gave us even a partial glimpse into the scope and degree of this off shoring even more millions of Americans would have a very different attitude about the lectures of free trade coming from the various political whores who push free trade clap trap.

    At this point in these kinds of discussions right wing libertarians who hawk the free enterprise fairy tale would chime in and speak of the nasty unions that drove away American manufacturing, forgetting to mention the decision to off shore was made by CEOs and hedge funds who had final say, and for 35 years have laughed all the way to the bank with very dubious bonuses and retirement packages collectively worth billions.

    One last parting point the right wing libertarians sweep under the rug and never mention:

    At their height Americans unions had at best roughly 40% to 43% of the American work force under contract – in plain English that means even at this historical height of union membership, give or take about 60% of American workers never had a shot at a higher standard of living let alone a union to make that shot even possible.

    That means one can say a very large portion of jobs we‘ve al seen disappear the last 40 years were never unionized to begin with.

    You want more proof:

    then look to the American Textile industry at its height in the early 1980s there were roughly 100 textile mills and clothing manufactures of all kinds spread in a many states stretching from Pennsylvania to Virginia down to North and South Carolina and Georgia. The vast bulk of these mills and clothing manufactures are all gone now and with it went roughly 270,000 jobs to China and all points beyond. Granted these were low wage jobs mostly held by poor working class white and black women. If they made more than ten bucks an hour they were doing real good, sadly most did not even earn that.

    That industry was never unionized, in fact it was 98% non-union.

    I willing to bet the hundreds of thousands of women who worked in these mills and shops and the communities that saw their tax base destroyed find it odd that the CEOs and other talking heads blamed unions or “regulations” for the closure of these work places as the regulations were poorly enforced and Unions were after all for men in factories far away that made cars and poured steal.

    More than anything this points out why these miserable poor women in Bangladesh died it comes down to gluttonous greed that came about because the super rich elites in this country will go to any length to serve their self interested vast wealth and propagate any lie to cover their tracks.

    Sadly Wal-Mart and the demise of main street retail space that once drove thousands of small towns across the United States is just one small aspect of a much more larger chain of events.

    American Capitalism and the global system of trans-national corporations has become a disingenuous lie of the super rich and that’s about it.

    ” Free Trade” is the slop shit cover story to hide the greed and the avarice that drives it all.

  2. Lynne Gillooly
    November 29, 2012 at 17:07

    It would be nice to see the Walton family heirs work in one of these shops for a month. Maybe then they would dig deeper to pay them the extra 25 cents a day.
    One can dream.
    But wait, they are the job creators and deserve the 895 billion they have “worked” so hard for. What was I thinking?

    • Geronimo Salinas (@GeronimoSalina1)
      November 29, 2012 at 17:15

      I think if our leaders experienced the results of their lies, we would end most of the atrocities in this world.

  3. paschn
    November 29, 2012 at 16:37

    “WalMart, can’t you spare a few more dimes for the Bangadeshi heirs?” Actually, the yankee filth at Wally World pay out alot for life insurance….with THEMSELVES as the beneficiaries….Ahhhh, what a country, eh? makes my heart swell with pride/patriotism God must SURELY bless AmeriKa….right?

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