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Bangladesh Fire Highlights Walmart’s Strategy of Plausible Deniability

Sean Combs

100 were killed in Bangladesh factory that made clothing for Disney, Walmart and Sean Combs

Bangladesh’s government has arrested three supervisors of the factory that saw a deadly fire that killed over 100 garment workers. The factory made products for Walmart, the Disney Company, Sean “P.Diddy” Combs’ clothing line and other US retailers.

The supervisors of Tazreen Fashion factory apparently told workers to continue working rather than leave the building during the fire, which they claimed was merely a drill. Witnesses also alleged that the supervisors lowered gates and even padlocked the exits.

“Our production manager … pulled down the collapsible gate on the third floor, forcing us to continue working,” the witness said, according to an account of the Tazreen Factory fire shared with ABC News Tuesday night by Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

“We pleaded with him to let us out, but [he] assured us that nothing was wrong and we should keep working,” the witness said. “He told us not to listen to any rumors. He said again, ‘Nothing has happened, just keep working.'”

Officials concluded that the fire was the work of sabotage at the factory. Protesters have continued to demonstrate in Bangladesh, dispersed by rubber bullets and tear gas near the capital of Dhaka on Wednesday. Many factories, fearing more unrest, remained closed.

Walmart continues to claim that they had no knowledge of their use of the factory, blaming a supplier. This is a classic tactic for Walmart and other retailers who outsource their labor overseas, a way to keep a layer of separation between them and the consequences of low prices:

If this were an isolated incident of Wal-Mart denying responsibility for the conditions under which the people who make and move its products labor, then the Bangladeshi disaster wouldn’t reflect quite so badly on the company. But the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work.

This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements. Many are employed at little more than the minimum wage in the massive warehouses in the inland exurbs of Los Angeles, where Wal-Mart’s imports from Asia are trucked from the city’s harbor to be sorted and packaged and put on the trucks and trains that take them to Wal-Mart stores for a thousand miles around […]

A small band of these warehouse workers has been demonstrating for the past couple of months to bring attention to the bizarrely contingent nature of their employment and the abuses that flow from it. Their numbers were augmented Friday by actual Wal-Mart employees in stores around the nation, calling attention to the everyday low wages and absence of benefits that the vast majority of the company’s 1.4 million U.S. employees receive.

The plight of garment workers in Bangladesh and warehouse workers in Los Angeles and a Walmart associate in Denver is actually the same plight. It springs from the same exploitation. Walmart can run from their responsibility, but they cannot hide.

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David Dayen

David Dayen