When it comes to unobstructed access to fire exits, protection from hazardous chemicals, and proper safety training, what responsibility do retailers have in monitoring their suppliers? Specifically, must U.S.-based big-box retailers ensure that their suppliers provide workers with these basic safety requirements?
The tragedy in Bangladesh – where over 1,000 workers at a garment factory were killed when the unstable building collapsed – has brought fresh focus to this ethical and legal question, and the violations that continue to occur in warehouses and factories that supply some of America’s largest retailers.
The collapse of the factory, in April, came just months after a fire in a nearby garment factory killed 112 workers. Many big-box apparel retailers recently signed a safety agreement, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which includes legally binding commitments to fund and mandate all necessary renovations and repairs at Bangladesh factories that are deemed dangerous. U.S.-based companies including PVH – the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch, Target and Kmart signed the agreement, but others including Gap, Wal-Mart, Sears and JCPenney refused, saying they had initiated their own safety measures. According to a New York Times article, Gap has said that the legal aspects of the accord would open a floodgate of lawsuits in the U.S.
The situation has also revealed one of the most shocking aspects of a big-box retailer’s relationship with its suppliers: Sometimes they don’t know who is making their products. One of the many name brands that received apparel from the collapsed factory, Benetton, claims it had no knowledge that its goods were being produced there, saying that the company’s main supplier had apparently subcontracted to the manufacturer. Wal-Mart and Sears have likewise claimed they had no idea their apparel was being made in the factory which caught fire.
While U.S. workers in these industries have greater protections – through Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) standards and trade unions – violations are nonetheless rampant in all stages of the supply chain.
Last month brought yet another case against a Wal-Mart supplier. Workers at Olivet International, a luggage manufacturer, have reported a litany of violations at the California warehouse. According to a Bloomberg article, workers alleged that boxes of suitcases and pet products, stacked 30 feet high without support, occasionally fall on workers; 53-foot-long metal shipping containers are not lit; fire exits are blocked; propane-powered forklifts have leaky gas tanks; and at least one forklift does not have brakes.
On the manufacturing end, in May, OSHA slapped a Georgia rug manufacturer with 15 “serious” violations – indicating there was a “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm” could occur from the hazard. According to the OSHA report, Garland Sales Inc. failed to: implement a written hazard communication program prior to using hazardous chemicals; establish a lockout/tagout program with machine-specific procedures; properly mark or assemble electrical control panels; protect workers from unguarded and improperly secured machinery; or provide unobstructed access to fire extinguishers. In addition, the company allowed workers to operate forklifts without proper certification or training.
A third OSHA violation from May points out that worker safety can be just as tenuous at the end of the apparel supply chain. A Burlington Coat Factory store in Lancaster, Pa., was cited for five serious violations, including blocked egresses, unguarded wall openings and electrical hazards.