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Wal-Mart and Sears Deny Compensation to Victims of Factory Fire

Six months after the tragic factory fire in a Bangladesh garment factory, which killed 112 workers and injured many more, Wal-Mart and Sears remain steadfast in their refusal to discuss victim compensation. This Sunday, representatives from companies associated with the factory met in Geneva to discuss compensation for workers at Tazreen Fashions; Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, told Bloomberg News that the talk was attended by Li & Fung Ltd. and C&A, but both Wal-Mart and Sears were conspicuously absent.

Sears and Wal-Mart aren’t legally required to compensate the families of the dead, or of the 100-plus employees injured in the fire, but at least two other companies have stepped in. Hong Kong exporter Li & Fung, which also indirectly contracted with Tazreen, pledged to pay $1,280 to the family of each deceased worker and to each injured worker. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, European retailer C&A has donated $1,200 to each family, and has pledged to pay $50 per month to children of the deceased.

Howard Riefs, a Sears spokesman, said in an emailed statement that although Sears would not attend the meeting, it would “[continue] to actively train our suppliers on factory and fire safety as part of our Global Compliance Program.” Although Wal-Mart did not respond to questions about the meeting or about victim compensation, spokesman Kevin Gartner stated that Wal-Mart is “actively developing and implementing proactive programs to raise fire safety awareness and increase fire prevention.”

Earlier this month, Wal-Mart announced a $1.6 million fund to establish a safety academy in Bangladesh specifically geared toward apparel manufacturers. Nova, however, was skeptical about the donation’s value, noting that many factories in Bangladesh lack safety features like fire escapes, and that “$1.6 million is a meaningless sum relative to what is actually needed to make the industry safe.”

Last November, the fire’s high death count and high profile of the involved retailers attracted international attention to worker safety in Bangladesh, but also exposed the lack of transparency in retail supply chains. Clothing destined for both Wal-Mart and Sears was discovered in the wreckage, but neither company negotiates with manufacturers directly, and therefore–plausibly–both were unaware of their relationship with the factory.  In the aftermath of the fire, both companies claimed to have explicitly forbidden their suppliers from contracting with Tazreen, which had recently failed several safety audits.