Survivors of a factory fire in Bangladesh and an armed assault in Nicaragua both called this week for Walmart to crack down on abuses in its global supply chain. Former garment worker Sumi Abedin, who jumped from a third story window to escape Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, will lead a mock “funeral procession” tonight to the New York City home of Walmart board member Michele Burns. Tomorrow, students and other supporters will converge on the New York and Los Angeles offices of SAE-A, a Walmart contractor accused of fomenting violence against union activists.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on either case.
Stabbings and Beatings in Nicaragua
“We’re making their clothes, the clothes they’re going to sell,” fired Nicaraguan factory worker Darwing Lopez-Alanez told The Nation in Spanish. “And so they have a role in what goes on inside there.” Lopez-Alanez, the secretary-general of a new union seeking recognition, was one of fifteen union leaders fired at two factories owned and operated by SAE-A, an apparel company based in South Korea.
In a March memo to Walmart and other US brands, the labor monitoring group Workers Rights Consortiumwrote that its preliminary investigation “finds that SAE-A brutally violated these workers’ associational rights by directing and paying a mob of more than 300 other workers—while on paid company time—to attack these employees with scissors and metal pipes.”
Lopez-Alanez said that he began organizing with his co-workers in hopes of confronting excessive workload and mistreatment by management. “I had seen it all,” he told The Nation. Because the recognized union in the factory always sided with management, said Lopez-Alanez, he and a group of co-workers began trying to organize a new one.
On March 4, the conflict turned violent. Lopez-Alanez and other fired workers showed up with leaflets outside his factory at 5 AM. “We planned a peaceful protest,” he said. An hour later, as some workers arrived at the factory, Lopez-Alanez and his comrades struck up conversations with them, “telling them that we needed to defend our rights, talking about the mistreatment at the factory that we were working in, the terrible conditions, that everything only seemed OK when a representative from one of the brands came.”
While the fired workers protested outside, witnesses later told the WRC, SAE-A management met with workers inside the factory and promised them bonuses and free food if they would break up the rally. Lopez-Alanez said he heard from co-workers that they were also warned that if the union campaign took hold, all of them could lose their jobs. According to Lopez-Alanez, as hundreds of those workers came back out of the factory, one of the fired workers reiterated over a bullhorn that the protest was peaceful. But “then this group came towards us and started beating us. The private security told us to stop making noise.” “I was scared,” said Lopez-Alanez, who came to the rally with his wife, a fellow fired union activist. “They fractured my leg with a pipe.”
With support from Warehouse Workers United, a project of the US union federation Change to Win, SAE-A union activists are demanding Walmart get the contractor to reinstate the fired workers and bargain with the new unions. In a Wednesday e-mail, WRC Executive Director Scott Nova told The Nation that while Walmart had not addressed his group’s letter, SAE-A “has responded and has provided information we have requested as part of our ongoing investigation.” Nova added, “We hope they will be willing to take action to address the problems at the factory.”
“What they want is to intimidate us so we don’t keep up the struggle,” said Lopez-Alanez. “A union that fought for the rights of the workers, they’re worried that would affect their profits.”
The SAE-A showdown comes as Walmart faces increased scrutiny over conditions in its domestic and international supply chains. In a November interview with The Nation, following the deaths of 112 workers in a Bangladesh factory, the WRC’s Nova accused Walmart of “setting up these contracting regimes in which you can get individual, poorly regulated businesses to compete viciously with each other for your business” by forcing down labor costs. “And then you let them go out and find new and creative ways to fuck workers and break the law,” he said. “And then you distance yourself from it, and say, ‘Oh this is so terrible…if you get caught. And of course in most cases, you don’t get caught.”
Fire Safety Deal Rebuffed in Bangladesh
On Monday, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that, unlike some brands, Walmart and Sears “didn’t respond to an invitation” to attend a meeting regarding compensation for the victims of November’s deadly factory fire at Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory. Interviewed yesterday (in Bangla), Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin charged that by blowing off the meeting, “Walmart has insulted all those workers who died in this fire and who were injured, as well as survivors…. By not participating in this meeting, ultimately they are supporting their death.”
As The Nation has reported, the factory was producing Walmart apparel at the time of the fire; the company has blamed this on a rogue supplier. In December, Bloomberg and The New York Times reported that Walmart shot down a plan proposed in 2011 under which major brands would have paid for the costs of safety improvements in the Bangladesh factories producing their products. In a statement e-mailed toBloomberg, a Walmart spokesperson said that the company “has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers.”
Abedin told The Nation that prior to the November fire, “many times we complained to the factory manager and said that it was unsafe. But he would always reply, ‘There will be no accident. If there is an accident, I will manage it.’”
When the November fire broke out, Abedin was working on the factory’s fourth floor. When a co-worker smelled smoke and she and some co-workers first tried to escape, said Abedin, managers “shouted at us, ‘There is no fire. This is a lie. Go and work.’” Five minutes later, when the smell had grown stronger, Abedin ran to a door but it was padlocked shut. “I was crying and running around the floors,” she said. Abedin took a different stairway down to the second floor, but found fire blocking any exit there. “Meanwhile,” she said, “power had gone out, and it was dark.” Following co-workers who were lighting the way with a cell phone, she made it back up to the third floor. “I saw many workers fallen in the production area,” she said, “and they had suffocated, and I was crying.”
A few workers forced open a window, and Abedin jumped out. “I jumped not to save my life,” she said. “I jumped to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”
Abedin said she woke up outside with a broken leg and a broken arm. When she turned to help the co-worker who had jumped just before her, he was dead. A doctor has told her not to return to work for a year. “I lost many of my co-workers and friends,” Abedin told The Nation.
“Walmart has a lot of responsibility,” Abedin said. “They knew about these working conditions.” Kalpona Akter, a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity who’s traveling the United States with Abedin, said that Bangladesh is attractive to Walmart in part because of the brutal suppression of union organizing efforts in the country. “Whenever workers try to organize themselves, they’ve been threatened, beaten and falsely [criminally] charged, and Walmart knew that,” Akter told The Nation. “Me and my colleagues have been charged for nine different criminal charges, and four of them have been filed by Walmart-sourcing factories. And Walmart knew that.”
The International Labor Rights Forum, one of the groups coordinating Abedin and Akter’s US visit, has joined BCWS in calling for Walmart to join two corporations which have signed a fire safety memorandum of understanding that would require them—once at least four companies have signed on—to pay for the costs of safety improvements in the Bangladesh factories where their apparel is made, and to support protections for union organizing there. Bloomberg reported that Walmart will donate $1.6 million “to establish an entity called the Environment, Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh.” ILRF Executive Director Judy Gearhart told The Nation that Walmart’s donation isn’t good enough: “They want to dedicate $1.6 million to training as opposed to really accepting full accountability for the workers in their supply chain.”
Organizing Across the Supply Chain
Abedin and Akter’s trip included a stop in Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, hometown last week, where they unsuccessfully sought meetings with Walmart executives at company headquarters and at the home of one of its vice presidents. The Bangladeshi activists have also been targeting other brands that have sourced goods from factories where workers died in fires; yesterday they were escorted out of a Gap location in New York’s Herald Square.
Prior to the mock funeral procession, this evening Abedin will join a panel of Walmart supply chain workers, including an employee of a New Jersey pharmaceutical supplier. Last week, she gathered in Southern California with worker activists from Walmart US distribution centers and the now-suspended seafood supplier CJ’s Seafood. At that meeting, workers released a set of “Core Principles” for Walmart supply chain reform, including a fire safety agreement in Bangladesh; stronger immigrant organizing rights protections in the US; and warehouse standards “that are enforceable, credible, and involve workers in a meaningful way.”
Ana Rosa Diaz, one of eight immigrant guest workers to strike last year over alleged forced labor at CJ’s, told The Nation in Spanish that she saw unity throughout the supply chain at a key step in challenging the Walmart business model. “Hopefully,” said Diaz, “other workers who work in these conditions feel motivated that they are not alone, and that they should come forward and be part of this effort.”
BCWS’ Akter said that meeting other Walmart supply chain workers had been eye-opening. “I knew that Walmart doesn’t care” about the rights of “workers that they’re sourcing from,” she told The Nation. But “I thought the workers that work in their stores, they’d be treating well, maybe paying well. But that really surprised me, to know that they are just on the bottom…. They are the same everywhere.”
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