Macy's (M) responds to Bangladesh factory disasters with review of safety standards

Labor rights advocate says Macy's should do more

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CINCINNATI - Macy’s Inc. is revising its fire-safety training program for overseas manufacturing facilities and working with external auditors to address the structural integrity of buildings where the retailer’s private brands are made.

The changes follow two factory disasters that claimed hundreds of lives in Bangladesh and focused a spotlight on unsafe working conditions in the textile industry. The death toll has now reached 500 in last week’s collapse of a building with garment factories in Dakha. Six months ago, a fire killed 112 in Tazreen.

Macy’s said less than 5 percent of its private brand products come from Bangladesh, but the company is taking steps to address worker safety.

“We use a small number of factories in Bangladesh and have had in place a stringent program of audits and inspections for each,” said Macy’s spokesman Jim Sluzewski, in an email response to WCPO Digital. “We have found that having direct and ongoing relationships with a select group of factories allow us to have intensive and constant oversight by Macy's associates on-site. Among our ongoing requirements for the factories we work with is that they be housed in a free-standing building which they solely occupy. This requirement provides us with better control over compliance of building construction quality and maintenance of fire safety standards.”

Macy's audited more than 1,500 factories in 2011, 47 of which failed inspection, according to the company's annual social responsibility report. Of the 47 failed inspections, 9 factories continued as Macy's suppliers pending corrective action and the company severed ties to 38.

The head of a labor-rights organization in Washington, D.C., said Macy’s is a significant customer in Bangladesh that can and should do more to improve worker safety. Scott Nova, executive director the Worker Rights Consortium, has advocated that U.S. retailers pay for and ensure the construction of safety improvements in Bangladesh. Many of the buildings lack fire exits and fail to comply with building codes, he said. Nova thinks the problem will only be solved if retailers pay for and verify that safety improvements are made.

“I’ve never seen any evidence that Macy’s is doing any better or any worse than others,” Nova said. “They’re just another big retailer profiting off the low wages and lax regulations that led to these disasters.”

Nova sent customs data to WCPO Digital that showed Macy's received shipments from 15 factories in Bangladesh in 2012. He estimated that Macy's buys about $70 million in merchandise from Bangladesh annually, calling it a significant player there.

“It is important to note that this means there are thousands of workers in Bangladesh who sew clothes for Macy’s,” Nova said.

Much of the media coverage on the Bangladesh disasters has focused on big retailers like Walmart, the Gap, JCPenney and Nike. They were among 40 retailers who met this week with representatives of the Bangladeshi garment industry, estimated to be a $20 billion enterprise that produces clothing for the most popular brands in the world. Macy’s did not attend the meeting, but it is involved in industry discussions on the topic.

“We continue to work with others in the industry to address the safety problems that have unfortunately resulted in several tragedies,” Sluzewski said. “While it is not our intention, nor is it our preference, to discontinue manufacturing in Bangladesh, our future decision making process will certainly take into account progress in this regard and will factor into our overall analysis.”

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