Walmart, other US retailers decide not compensate victims of Bangladesh garment factory fire

European retailers on April 15 met with Bangladesh union leaders, staff from the Clean Clothes Campaign, and representatives of IndustriALL Global Union in Geneva Switzerland to discuss details of how much the retailers will pay into a compensation fund for the victims of last November’s fire at the Tazreen Designs garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed 112 workers and injured scores more.

US retailers including Walmart, which was Tazreen’s biggest customer, were absent from the discussions. Bloomberg reports that Walmart and Sears, another Tazreen customer, are not planning to contribute to the compensation fund.

“We once again call upon Walmart and the other major companies sourcing from Tazreen to aid the families of the dead and the injured workers,” said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Their refusal to do so indicates a shocking lack of concern for the rights and well-being of the workers who make their clothes and who, in this case, were injured or killed in the process.”

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity said to Bloomberg that by not attending the compensation meeting, Walmart and other Western retailers are sending the wrong message. “If they’re not there, they’re totally giving the message that they are supporting these death traps and they really don’t care how many lives go to make these clothes,” said Akter.

The European retailers present at the Geneva meeting are C & A of the Netherlands, KiK of Germany, and El Corte Ingles of Spain. Piazza Italia did not attend but said that it would contribute to the compensation fund.

The retailers and the unions are still working out details of how much each company will contribute to the $5.7 million compensation fund.

“We have agreed on confirming the concrete amounts that each of these brands will contribute by the end of this month,” says Jyrki Raina general secretary of IndustriaALL  “The families and the injured have already waited far too long.”

In addition to Walmart and Sears, other Tazreen customers that did not attend the Geneva meeting are Li & Fung (Hong Kong), Teddy Smith (France), Edinborough Woolen Mills (UK), Dickies (US), and Karl Rieker (Germany).  Li & Fung has, however, agreed to pay compensation.

In January Walmart said that it was implementing a zero tolerance policy toward contractors that do not abide by its code of labor standards. The company did not reply when asked by Bloomberg for the reasons that it would not contribute to the compensation fund.

The deadly fire broke out at the Tazreen factory on November 24. About 600 people were working in the factory at the time. Workers said that fire exits in the multi-story building were locked and that the building contained a number of fire hazards including faulty wiring.

At the time of the fire, five of Tazreen’s production lines were making clothes for Walmart, but Walmart says that Tazreen was a subcontractor and that the retail giant was not aware that Tazreen was doing work for the company.

Some of the most dangerous work in the world is at the hundreds of Bangladeshi garment factories, most of which are located near Dhaka in the export processing zone controlled by the Bangladesh military.

Since 2005, more than 700 workers have died in Bangladesh garment factory fires. A report from the Clean Clothes Campaign and SOMO says that “the safety record of the Bangladesh garment industry is appalling” and that “since 2009, at least 165 workers have been killed in Bangladesh in four separate factories producing for international brands.”

Bloomberg also reports that in 2011 Walmart decided not to help pay for safety upgrades at the Bangladesh factories that make its clothes.

On April 12, Sumi Abetin, a garment worker who survived the Tazreen fire, and Akter delivered a petition signed by 112,000 consumers to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. The petition urges Walmart to meet with Bangladeshi garment workers and commit to taking action to prevent more tragedies in the factories that make their garments.

Abetin and Akter are on a ten-city End Death Traps tour of the US that began April 8 and ends April 26.