112 Bangladeshi workers perished in a factory fire last week – the cause is still under investigation. And as the tragedy made its way across international news headlines, it quickly became clear the factory was producing clothing for mega-retailer Walmart in the United States.
The garment factory in Bangladesh where a weekend fire killed at least 112 people had been making clothes for Walmart without the giant U.S. retailer’s knowledge, Walmart said.
‘Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,’ America’s biggest retailer said in a statement Monday. ‘The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.’
Survivors of the weekend fire said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and apparently were there just to impress inspectors, and that when the fire alarm went off, bosses told workers to return to their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits.
However, what Walmart hopes the public never figures out is that if ever the mega-retailer manages to bring standards and wages up to what the West would consider “acceptable,” their offshore supply chain would no longer benefit them and their profit margins – jobs would be better off kept on American soil, where they began in the first place. Clearly Walmart has no intention of “improving” anything except perhaps better obfuscating their supply chain from the general public.Additionally, the mega-retailer’s alibi that it “didn’t know” the factory was still producing clothing for their stores is both irresponsible and unacceptable. In order to circumvent safety concerns and liability, Walmart may have just as easily “known” and set up the arrangement to maintain plausible deniability while maintaining its profitable supply chain. Walmart is responsible for its supply chain, and if is difficult to keep track of factories scattered across the planet to fill stores in America, then that’s all the more reason to bring the jobs back home.
Walmart isn’t the only mega-corporation who has offshored American jobs to dungeons and deathtraps overseas – Apple’s relationship with Taiwan’s Foxconn is another example. Operating in mainland China, where windows must be locked and safety nets deployed below to prevent waves of suicide attempts that sweep across the oppressed, underpaid workforce (also here, here, and here) as they churn out iPads and iPhones to sate America’s consumerist hunger, Foxconn has become a notorious name in the generally under-reported world of exploited labor.
Ironically, many who tout themselves as “liberal” and interested in human rights, can be found “tweeting,” updating their Facebook accounts, e-mailing, and discussing their pet humanitarian causes on iPads and iPhones created by the modern equivalent of slave labor.
Don’t Just Boycott Walmart – Replace it Permanently
Walmart’s questionable supply chain is not a new topic, it is simply back in the news because of a particularly tragic repercussion of its habitual disregard for human life. Campaigns to force Walmart, or Apple, or any other large multinational corporation to reform their behavior has only caused them to bury their abuses deeper, further from necessary oversight. It is only tragedies like the fire in Bangladesh that momentarily bring the truth of Walmart’s continued, willful negligence to the surface.
Many people are quick to call for a boycott – and this is indeed a superb idea. But it is an idea that will never take hold unless it is taken to the next level – by doing so, it will address the myriad of problems Walmart’s business model has created, and not just human rights abuses.
Boycotting Walmart must be done in tandem with a concerted local effort to create citizen-networks, clubs, hackerspaces, and makerspacesto pool resources together and begin replacing permanently, large multinationals like Walmart, not through mere protests or policy changes, but through local innovation and entrepreneurship. These local networks will produce small businesses and jobs, leveraging technology while giving local communities exactly what they want, and a direct hand in the manufacturing process, not merely a chance to “belly up” to the corporate-consumerist troughs filled daily at Walmart.