Following exposure in the media that at least two Walmart suppliers were using the Tazreen Fashions factory, Walmart recently announced a Zero Tolerance Policy and Ethical Sourcing Program Enhancements. The company committed to a policy of "zero tolerance" for suppliers that use unauthorized subcontractors, has promised to terminate suppliers who subcontract to unauthorized factories not authorized by Walmart, and to publish a list on its website of factories not authorized to manufacture goods for Walmart. In an effort to increase workplace safety, Walmart implemented a ban on factories in multi-use buildings in Bangladesh and promised that facilities found to have violated safety regulations must take corrective actions within thirty days. Furthermore, the new regulations require all factories to have an electrical and building safety assessment by an independent, certified agency, all barred windows to have an emergency mechanism to allow for escape, all floors and buildings to have a secondary exit, and all factories to have proper access for fire trucks and firefighting equipment. To fund the program, Walmart is “considering” participating in a revolving fund that would provide loans to Bangladeshi factory owners.
This is the most substantive and detailed material that Walmart has released on this issue to date. It recognizes the need for dedicated fire and electrical safety inspections, some form of financial assistance to factories, and the need for an expedited timeline for addressing fire safety violations. However, it does little more than that: missing in Walmart’s program are most of the key elements of the labor-supported Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, specifically:
- Transparency. Walmart’s new policy on
auditing and subcontractors lacks any kind of transparency that might ensure
its effectiveness. Walmart has not agreed to publicly disclose its
supplier factories, only to post the names of factories that have been dropped
Complete transparency regarding all supplier factories is essential for independent
monitoring. There will be no way for an independent party to access the
findings of inspection reports, nor will workers have a way to hear the
new policy does not include any reference to a role for workers and unions. Any
effective monitoring policy must have at its heart a central role for workers
and their unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and
access to factories for unions to educate workers on how they can protect their
rights and safety, including their right to refuse unsafe work.
of a binding contract. Walmart’s new policy does not include a binding
contract between the brands and worker representatives to make company
commitments enforceable. As it stands, Walmart does not promise to stand by the
factories in order to ensure factories are able to make changes or to work with
independent stakeholders to ensure workers’ welfare during repairs or in cases
where a particular factory’s refusal to change merits that Walmart discontinue
business with them.
of any price commitments. The new policy does not ensure
sufficient financing and adequate pricing so that contractors could cover the
cost of eliminating deadly hazards and operating in a safe manner. Walmart said
it is “looking into” a loan program, but does not agree to provide prices to
factories sufficient for them to have the financial wherewithal to maintain
- Insufficient safety requirements. The new policy does not explicitly require fireproof staircases or external fire escapes in multistory factories, which was a reason so many workers died at Tazreen. Walmart states that external fire escape routes are merely “preferable,” even though it is very specific about a number of other requirements, for example removable window bars.
A meaningful fire safety program would require independent inspections by trained fire safety experts not controlled by the brands or the factories being inspected, and public reporting of the results of all inspections. Walmart needs to re-evaluate its purchasing practices and prices so its demands are not putting excessive pressure on factories to cut corners on safety. It also needs to provide better technical assistance training for factories so they can run their businesses better.
Considering the policy's shortcomings, we wonder whether the new policy is more an attempt to avoid a public-relations catastrophe, rather than an expression of genuine concern for the rights and welfare of the workers who sew clothing for Walmart.