Wal-Mart to fund supplier training after deadly Bangladesh fire

(REUTERS) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world's largest retailer, is making its biggest push yet to try to improve conditions at factories that produce its clothing after a fire at a Bangladesh factory killed 112 people last year.

The company also said on Tuesday that it would donate US$1.6 million (S$2 million) to help start a new Bangladesh training academy, and outlined its efforts to regain control over the complex and far-flung web of factories that make its products.

"With the focus that is there at the moment on fire safety, everyone is keen to make sure that they get the right level of controls in place to protect the workers," Mr Rajan Kamalanathan, Wal-Mart's vice-president of ethical sourcing, said in an interview. "There is a need for that."

Wal-Mart says it was unaware that its private label clothing was being made in the Tazreen Fashions factory that went up in flames in November, killing 112 people and injuring at least 150. Bangladeshi authorities said the facility was not safe for use, and Wal-Mart said it had not authorised anyone to make its garments there.

The fire gave rise to criticism that Wal-Mart should have been more aware of its supply chain. Since the fire, Wal-Mart has been taking a harder look at what it can do to monitor safety at the low-cost factories that produce its goods.

While products for other companies, such as Sears Holdings Corp and Walt Disney Co, were also being made at Tazreen, the biggest spotlight has been on Wal-Mart to push for safety improvements.

Wal-Mart sent a 10-page letter to suppliers in January to lay out its policies. Since then, it has held meetings with them in Bentonville, Arkansas, where it is based; in Bangkok; and elsewhere.

The company has given its suppliers until April 15 to disclose which factories they work with, and says it will sever ties with those that subcontract work without telling Wal-Mart.

Along with the donation to the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), Wal-Mart last month started to have Bureau Veritas, a European testing and inspection company, assess factories and train workers on its behalf in Bangladesh.

ISC plans to set up an Environmental, Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh with the US$1.6 million in funding from Wal-Mart and US$2 million from Sida, the Swedish International Development Agency.