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Wal-Mart going its own way on Bangladesh factory safety

This is among garments sold in the past

This is among garments sold in the past year at an Atlanta Walmart store that were made in Bangladesh. The company says it will pursue its own fire and safety inspections in Bangladesh factories. Credit: AP, 2012

Wal-Mart Stores says it is going its own way on fire and safety inspections in Bangladesh factories that produce its goods.

Wal-Mart announced Wednesday that is stepping up its Bangladesh factory inspections while U.S. and European retailers pursued separate agreements to try to prevent another disaster in a garment industry where more than 1,200 workers have died in the past six months.

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, said it does not plan to sign a fire and building safety agreement backed by some of Europe's biggest apparel brands because it believes its own safety inspection plans will get faster results.

Wednesday is the deadline for retailers to decide whether to join the consortium, led by labor groups such as Europe's IndustriALL.

Other U.S. retailers including Gap said they would not join the European pact without changes in the way conflicts are resolved in the courts. U.S. companies have been reluctant to join any industry accord that creates legally binding objectives.

"Wal-Mart believes its safety plan meets or exceeds the IndustriALL proposal, and will get results more quickly," the U.S. retailer said in a statement on Tuesday.

Wal-Mart has begun checking the 279 factories that supply its stores, and plans to inspect them all within six months. Its checks have already turned up two locations with safety problems and it asked the Bangladesh government to suspend production at those factories.

In Chittagong, 15 miles from Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, workers at one factory that Wal-Mart wants closed said they were unaware of any safety concerns and business was proceeding as usual. Company officials at Stitch Tone Garments Ltd. said they were no longer making clothes for Wal-Mart, but did not say who they were currently supplying.

"We don't know about the problems of our owners. We don't know about the risk of building. We are working for our livelihood. If we stop the work, we cannot survive," said one of the workers, Parvin Akter.

The minimum wage for Bangladesh's garment workers is about $38 a month, although many factories pay more than that in order to attract workers in a tight labor market. Bangladesh ranked last in minimum wages for factory workers in 2010, according to World Bank data.

The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar, near Dhaka, has focused attention on safety standards at Bangladesh factories that make clothing for the world's major apparel brands and retailers. The death toll stood at 1,127 as rescue operations ended this week.

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