Groups report worker abuses

Mind suppliers, Walmart urged

Women working in Asian factories in Walmart Inc.'s garment supply chain are subjected to sexual harassment, abuse and violence, according to research conducted by a coalition of worker-rights organizations.

The report -- which was released Friday -- was based on data collected from interviews with more than 250 workers from 60 factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia that supply clothing items to Walmart.

The investigation determined the workers, who are concentrated in short-term, low-skill and low-wage positions, are at "daily risk" of gender-based violence and harassment. Workers told coalition representatives about incidents in which they were targeted because of their gender and faced retaliation if they reported mistreatment.

"We think the report shows that there is systematic, gender-based violence and that it relates to the structure of global supply chains," said JJ Rosenbaum, the U.S. director of Global Labor Justice, one of the worker-rights organizations that participated in the five-month project. "So I think what we're really asking is for Walmart to take a role in fixing it because we don't think that suppliers alone can fix it."

Global Labor Justice worked alongside organizations like the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, Cambodia's Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights as part of the coalition. The research report was prepared ahead of next week's meeting of the International Labor Organization to discuss gender-based violence in the workplace.

Anannya Bhattacharjee of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance said in a statement that Walmart is the trendsetter for lean supply chain management. But the retailer, which has 11,700 stores worldwide and roughly 2.2 million employees, and other brands "must take responsibility on their supply chains."

Walmart spokesman Marilee McInnis said the company recently became aware of the report and is reviewing the findings. She said the accounts of women workers are "concerning" and Walmart takes the allegations seriously.

"Walmart's Standards for Suppliers lists our social and environmental expectations for our suppliers, specifically addressing the cultivation of a safe and healthy work environment," McInnis said. "Walmart does not own or operate facilities in Cambodia or Bangladesh, but we expect our suppliers to uphold these standards in the factories where they manufacture product we sell."

The coalition led its 43-page report with the story of a worker in Bangladesh, who said she experienced sexual harassment after being hired as a production-line manager by a Walmart garment supplier in Bangladesh.

The report said her general manager flirted with her, touched her on the shoulder and the head. He also asked the worker to go out on a date with him, but she refused his requests and was eventually fired.

Another worker said she resigned after facing verbal abuse and bullying, which was used as a means to push her out of the position to avoid paying workplace benefits.

Tola Meun, the executive director of the Center for Alliance in Cambodia, said in a statement that gender-based violence is a "daily reality" for women garment workers driven to meet unrealistic production targets.

"Most of these cases are not reported due to fear of retaliation in the workplace," Meun said.

Rosenbaum said the coalition is engaged in research across the garment supply chain, but Walmart's supplier factories were investigated because of the retailer's pervasive footprint. She added that Walmart has an opportunity to lead, but cautioned "no entity can regulate itself alone." The company said on its corporate website that, as of June 2017, its responsible sourcing team had about 200 employees in the home office and around the world.

The coalition is asking Walmart to take immediate action in a few ways, including public support toward creating international labor standards on gender violence. In addition, the coalition is asking Walmart to meet with local organizations and trade unions that have direct experience in the supplier factories and to pilot women's committees in factories.

"We really think that together, the brands, the suppliers, and the worker organizations on a local level can come up with a committee and a response to this," Rosenbaum said.

Walmart said it believes in collaborative and multifaceted approaches in improving working conditions, pointing to partnerships between facilities producing products for Walmart and labor organizations. Walmart also said on its website that, while it prefers to work with suppliers to help improve conditions for workers in the supply chain, it may impose consequences that include termination of business for those who fail to live up to the company's expectations.

"We care about the men and women who work to make the products we sell, and we are committed to working with others to building a more transparent supply chain and help improve operations and the global supply chains as a whole," McInnis said.

Business on 05/26/2018