Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Walmart's and the Gap's deadly penny-pinching

The second part of Wal-Mart's "Save money. Live better." motto has always been a bit dodgy. But now the giant retailer might have to scrap it altogether.

Bloomberg reports that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Gap, Inc. each made a calculated decision to risk the lives of workers in Bangladesh in order to save a few bucks.
At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.

The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc. (GPS), Target Corp. and JC Penney Co.

Details of the meeting have emerged after a fire at a Bangladesh factory that made clothes for Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings Corp. killed more than 100 people last month. The blaze has renewed pressure on companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh, where more than 700 garment workers have died since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.

At the meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, in April 2011, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost, according to Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, who attended the gathering. Kalavakolanu and her counterpart at Gap reiterated their position in a report folded into the meeting minutes, obtained by Bloomberg News.

“Specifically to the issue of any corrections on electrical and fire safety, we are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories,” they said in the document. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
But Bloomberg goes on to report that other retailers, including PVH Corp., which sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing, did find these protections "financially feasible."

Those pennies do add up, however. Wal-Mart found it financially feasible to pay its CEO nearly $3 million in "cash incentives" and $18 million in total compensation in 2012. Gap paid its CEO $9.7 million in 2011.

Apparently, some lives are worth a whole lot more than others.