Bangladeshi Garment Factory Fire Has Wal-Mart Rethinking Sourcing Policy

A tragic fire at a Bangladesh garment factory prompts the world's largest retailer -- Wal-Mart Stores -- to rethink its sourcing strategy and institute a zero-tolerance policy for dangerous working conditions at its suppliers' facilities. Could that prompt the company to up its use of U.S.-based clothing manufacturers? We've got to hope so.

The retailer isn't directly to blame for the November fire that killed more than a hundred garment workers. A Wal-Mart supplier had shipped out its business to a subcontractor illegally. The company still seems to be entertaining ideas of reducing its dependence on Bangladesh, which lags only China in terms of garment exports, for cheap clothing, according to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story.

Wages paid to garment workers in the nation are the world's lowest at as little as $0.18 an hour, according to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights. It doesn't help that Bangladesh does little to enforce labor protections, with much of its parliament in bed with business. The responsibility to keep the nation's factories safe, however, doesn't lie completely upon the South Asian country's shoulders, according to the institute's executive director Charles Kernaghan.

"Bangladesh needs to make a giant step forward in terms of enforceable labor rights ... But when it comes to making the factories safer, this has to be up to the big retailers. It’s at least 50 percent their responsibility," he told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Wal-Mart still plans to use Bangladesh-based suppliers as long as they comply with the retailer's new policy, assures the company's senior manager of international corporate affairs.

Said Wal-Mart's Megan Murphy to Bloomberg: "Bangladesh continues to be an important sourcing market for Wal-Mart. We welcome the opportunity to work with the respective governments, suppliers and factories to improve worker safety conditions and standards."

Where would the retailer go instead of Bangladesh? Probably to Vietnam or Cambodia. Wouldn't it be great if the company reshored that work to U.S. manufacturers? But that could mean we'd have to pay more for our underwear. We can do it!

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