Wal-Mart finds Elec-Tech plant unsafe
An investigation by Wal-Mart Stores has found hazardous working conditions at the mainland factories operated by its home appliances supplier, Elec-Tech International.
The United States-based retail giant identified 55 incidents of staff injuries in the past 12 months and asked Elec-Tech to decommission all the unsafe machines involved in frequent industrial accidents, which had left many workers with severed hands and fingers.
The South China Morning Post last month reported the allegations of poor safety at Shenzhen-listed Elec-Tech's plants by a labour rights group, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom).
'We take reports like Sacom's very seriously and take prompt remedial action if our investigations confirm any of the findings,' Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said over the weekend. 'Our team in China conducted two unannounced investigation audits [at Elec-Tech's main production facility in Zhuhai] on August 18 and August 24.'
Sacom had called on Wal-Mart to conduct an inquiry at Elec-Tech, which the group accused of 'rampant labour rights violations' that contravened the US retailer's own code of conduct for suppliers.
It said the causes of injuries at the mainland firm's Zhuhai production base, which employs about 6,000, included unsafe machines, inadequate training, lack of protective equipment and pressure to work faster.
After Wal-Mart launched its probe, Elec-Tech issued a statement on August 21 that promised improved safety conditions in the workplace and offered additional financial compensation to those disabled by industrial mishaps.
Elec-Tech, which also has plants in Zhongshan and Shenzhen, is one of the world's largest contract manufacturers of small household appliances. Its products include toaster ovens, coffee makers, deep fryers, blenders, computer-controlled bread makers, and flat irons.
Wal-Mart's investigation has led to half of the so-called stamping machines used at Elec-Tech's facility being turned off. The equipment will remain decommissioned until the firm manages to replace, repair or equip these with the necessary safety features, such as infrared detectors, according to Gardner.
Sacom had earlier complained about Elec-Tech's continued use of the old pedal-operated equipment, called 'hand-eating machines' by workers, at its Zhuhai production base.
Debby Chan Sze-wan, spokeswoman at Sacom, said mostly new and untrained migrant workers, with only cloth gloves as protection, were assigned to these machines, all of which lack basic infrared sensors that could help prevent accidents.
'The machines ruined not only the hands of workers, but also their future,' Chan said. 'For workers in their early 20s, it is very unlikely they will find a new job after their fingers or hands get amputated.'
Wal-Mart has stipulated that the repairs on the machines or their replacements and the overall safety conditions at Elec-Tech's Zhuhai facility have to be evaluated by the mainland's Environment Health and Safety Academy, which is under the not-for-profit group Institute for Sustainable Communities.
'We will also evaluate the supplier's other factories,' Gardner said.
The Wal-Mart inquiry also prompted Elec-Tech to promise last week that it would set up a fund for injured workers, according to Chan.
Gardner said Wal-Mart had also asked Elec-Tech to provide suitable jobs for the injured workers. 'Given the lack of grievance process and the serious nature of the situation at the [Zhuhai] factory, we are in the process of introducing a localised independent hotline, which will be in addition to our Ethics Hotline [a toll-free number used for confidential and anonymous reports of ethics violations], so that workers can raise any concerns without the risk of retaliation,' Gardner said.
'This will provide helpful feedback to Wal-Mart and allow us to validate that the corrective actions have been successfully implemented.'