One year after the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than one thousand people and injured hundreds of others, have the companies who swore to tighten down on labor rights in their supply chain made good on their promises?
One of the most prominent firms targeted in campaigns after the collapse to improve the rights of garment workers abroad was Walmart, an industry juggernaut with tremendous influence. Garments linked to Walmart were found inside the factory, connecting it to possibly illegal and definitely dangerous working conditions there and contributing to global pressure for Western companies to demand safer working conditions at their overseas facilities.
In the wake of the collapse, Walmart stood out as a particularly stubborn entry in the lineup of Western firms being held up under the microscope. While many firms agreed to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety established after the incident, Walmart refused. The company also refused to join the short list of firms who cooperated to create a victims’ and survivors’ fund to provide compensation to those harmed by the horrific factory accident.
Then, it tried promoting its own self-regulating factory certification program, in a move that was criticized by activists concerned about the need for independent, nonbiased supervision of working conditions in Bangladesh and other countries where sweatshop working conditions are distressingly common.
Walmart conducted some safety inspections and attempted to clean up its PR with promises to improve working conditions. The company pledged to stop doing business with companies that provided unsafe working conditions or exploited workers, or to require suppliers and business partners to improve their facilities and worker agreements. It also pledged to be more aggressive about supply line control in the interest of weeding out garments and other products produced in substandard conditions.
Now that a year has passed and the Rana Plaza collapse has faded from the minds of all but survivors and their families along with stalwart labor organizers, how is Walmart doing? Not well, argues Yana Kunichoff at In These Times, in a retrospective piece covering Walmart’s moves since the collapse as well as its current state. She notes that while Walmart made minor concessions last year, working conditions on US soil haven’t improved, in Walmart stores or distribution centers. The company has been targeted in direct action campaigns across the US demanding the right to organize, advocating for better pay and protections, and speaking up on behalf of workers who were fired for raising concerns about unsafe working conditions.
At home and abroad, Walmart’s supply chain is riddled with holes that leave workers vulnerable to economic and physical exploitation. After Rana Plaza, some organizers hoped that it and other firms like it would stay in the spotlight and be forced to make major reforms, but that largely hasn’t been the case.
How do we permanently change working conditions for some of the most vulnerable people in the supply chain? It starts with pressure from consumers, who need to remind companies that they still remember Rana Plaza, and they want to see a transparent process for corporate responsibility and supply chain accountability.
It’s time for third party organizations to certify working conditions, for all workers to earn a fair wage and for no garment worker to die or be seriously injured on the job ever again.
Photo credit: UK Department for International Development.