For several years, Wal-Mart critics have charged that the retailer’s inspection program for its more than 5,000 overseas factories is ineffectual, and that the company has ignored sweatshop conditions. Critics also say that Wal-Mart needs to hire an independent monitoring firm to really create a transparent view of their factory network. Wal-Mart does not make public its list of factories, and its own internal inspection program has been highly critical of the extent of unacceptable sweatshop conditions at the retailer’s factories. This week the Associated Press reports that Wal-Mart is going to step up its “surprise inspections” of factories to “make sure its suppliers uphold labor and environmental standards.” Of course, these inspections will be done by Wal-Mart’s people, and will not be independent. The AP says surprise inspections will make up 30% of all inspections — so 70% of the inspections are pre-arranged appointments. The giant retailer is already the subject of a lawsuit filed in San Francisco on behalf of workers in 5 foreign countries. “We find a mixture of announced and unannounced audits (inspections) is the best balance,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson explained. Wal-Mart says it is meeting with a group, Business for Social Responsibility, to explore the possibility of using independent auditors. The company last year fired its own factory inspector in Central America when the inspector blew the whistle on factory conditions he directly observed. Wal-Mart said their worker was fired for fraternizing with a fellow employee, and not for his charges against the company’s ineffective inspections. Wal-Mart says it is working with the International Labor Organization, a United Nations Agency, to inspect factories in Cambodia. Wal-Mart told the AP it has an Ethical Standards Program that has a staff of about 200 people, who conducted 13,600 factory inspections in 2005. In 2004, Wal-Mart said 36% of inspections revealed “high-risk” violations, with another 42% classified as medium-risk.
The big “surprise” will come when Wal-Mart turns over its list of factories to an independent group for monitoring. Ultimately, if factory inspections force better working conditions, higher wages, organized workers, etc. it will be an unpleasant “surprise” for the discount retailer, whose business model is based on exploitation. For earlier stories on this topic, search Newsflash by “factories” or “sweatshop.”