Documents found at the Tazreen apparel factory in Bangladesh, where 124 workers died in a fire nearly two weeks ago, indicate that three American garment companies were using the factory during the past year to supply goods to Walmart and its Sam’s Club subsidiary.
The documents — photographed by a Bangladeshi labour organizer after the fire and made available to The New York Times — include an internal production report from mid-September showing that 5 of the factory’s 14 production lines were devoted to making apparel for Walmart.
In a related matter, two officials who attended a meeting held in Bangladesh in 2011 to discuss factory safety in the garment industry on Wednesday said the Walmart official there played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety.
Ineke Zeldenrust, international co-ordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group based in Amsterdam, said Walmart was the company that “most strongly advocated this position.”
The meeting was held in April 2011 in Dhaka, the country’s capital, and brought together global retailers, Bangladeshi factory owners, government officials and non-government organizations after several apparel factory fires in Bangladesh had killed dozens of workers the previous winter.
According to the minutes of the meeting, made available to The Times, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Walmart director of ethical sourcing, along with an official from another major apparel retailer, noted that the proposed improvements in electrical and fire safety would involve as many as 4,500 factories and would be “in most cases” a “very extensive and costly modification.”
“It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments,” the minutes said.
Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, said the company official’s remarks in Bangladesh were “out of context.”
“Walmart has been advocating improved fire safety with the government, industry groups and with suppliers,” he said, adding that the company has helped develop and establish programmes to increase fire prevention.
Zeldenrust said, “Everyone recognized that fire safety was a serious problem and it was a high time to act on it, and Walmart’s position had a very negative impact.” She added, “It gives manufacturers the excuse they’re looking for to say, ‘We’re not to blame’.”