Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is promoting a corporate code of conduct that it calls one of the strictest in the industry. But an investigation by Radio-Canada, the French-language service of the CBC, casts doubt on the company's capacity to enforce that code in dealing with Third World countries.
Much of the clothing purchased by Wal-Mart is made in poor countries like Bangladesh. It was with the intention of preventing abuse in the workplace, especially the use of child labour, that Wal-Mart introduced its code of conduct. It specifically says the company will not deal with any supplier that employs children under age 14.
For fewer than $50 per month, workers in Bangladesh knit, sew and pack clothes for sale around the world, and some garments end up at Wal-Mart stores in Canada.
Radio-Canada journalists posed as buyers in the Canadian garment industry so they could videotape inside factories in Bangladesh with hidden cameras.
In one factory, typical of many in the country, children were busy with lower-skill tasks. In badly lit, dirty and overheated workshops, young boys were everywhere.
A label reading Simply Basic, one of Wal-Mart's in-house brand names along with the number CA 28885, the corporate ID of Wal-Mart Canada, was seen in the factory.
The same factory also produces Wal-Mart's corporate T-shirt for Canada.
The factory manager told Radio-Canada that the children are working on domestic production.
"They do not work on export garments, like Wal-Mart's," said Liakot Patwary. "I can give you [a] guarantee."
But after filling many orders, Patwary said he had never met inspectors from the company and Wal-Mart had not visited the factory.
When shown the images from the report, Wal-Mart explained that the factories were subcontractors with no direct business link with Wal-Mart. Still, the company's representative in Montreal acknowledged the problem.
"These factories are clearly violating our code of conduct," said Wal-Mart spokesman Yanik Deschenes. "That's why we've ceased immediately to do business with these two factories."
Wal-Mart said it tries to inspect all of the factories that work on its orders. But with literally thousands of subcontractors around the world, Wal-Mart may not be able to enforce its own corporate code of conduct and get rid of labour practices it says are unacceptable.