FORMER SWEATSHOP WORKER TO BILLIONAIRE WALTON FAMILY
Clare O’Connor, Forbes
Kalpona Akter of Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity stands to officially call on Wal-Mart to address workplace safety in Bangladesh
The multimillion dollar dog and pony show that is Wal-Mart’s Annual Meeting started off on its usual celebratory note on Friday morning with 14,000 workers and shareholders cheering and whooping along with host Hugh Jackman, the Hollywood star, and musical interludes by such luminaries as John Legend and Kelly Clarkson.
Billionaire Walton family scion and company chair S Robson ‘Rob’ Walton repeatedly invoked the memory of his father, Wal-Mart founder Sam, to cheers of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“Dad would get such a kick out of this celebration,” said Walton, the ninth richest person in America. His entire extended family, including brother Jim Walton and the country’s richest women, sister Alice Walton and sister-in-law Christy Walton, sat beaming as the camera panned their way.
The jubilant atmosphere at the aptly named Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas was punctured an hour into the program, however. The otherwise excitable crowd grew silent as Kalpona Akter, a former sweatshop worker from Bangladesh, stood to officially call on Wal-Mart to address workplace safety in the wake of tragedies at Tazreen Fashions, where a deadly fire killed at least 117 workers in November, and Rana Plaza, which collapsed in April killing 1,127.
Akter worked in a garment factory from age 12, toiling for $6 a month (and 450 hours a month) for eight years. Now the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Akter was flown in thanks to a grassroots campaign by labour activists Making Change at Wal-Mart, who raised $9000 on fundraising site Indiegogo. She travelled to Arkansas with Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the Tazreen Factory fire.
Akter delivered a shareholder proposal — one of five on the schedule — on behalf of activist shareholder Jim McRitchie. If passed, McRitchie’s Proposal No. 5 will allow Wal-Mart shareholders who own 10 percent of shares to call for a special meeting on key issues of corporate governance. “Shareowner input on the timing of shareowner meetings is especially important when events unfold quickly and issues may become moot by the next annual meeting,” McRitchie said in a statement. These events include tragedies caused by poor workplace safety standards, Akter explained.
“Wal-Mart executives say its production was placed in these buildings by unscrupulous suppliers, claims that strain credulity,” Akter said. “Even if true, this only proves that Wal-Mart’s supply chain is out of control. Worse, Wal-Mart commissioned labour rights audits at one of these factories, yet the hazards that ultimately killed workers were never addressed. Now Wal-Mart executives have stated the repairs needed to make our factories safe are too expensive, yet the costs would be just two tenths of 1 percent of the company’s profit last year, and just 1 percent of the dividends paid out last year to the Walton family heirs.”
Akter addressed the Walton family, who are worth $93 billion collectively, saying: “I would like to direct this to the chairman of the board, Mr Rob Walton: I am sure you are aware that fixing these buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family’s wealth, so I implore you to please help us. You have the power to do this very easily. Don’t you agree that the factories where Wal-Mart products are made should be safe for the workers?”
She noted that 41 major retailers have recently signed an Accord on Fire and Building Safety. “Wal-Mart is one of only a few major importers refusing to sign,” she said. “Instead, Wal-Mart’s public relations officials have announced plans for an alternative to this landmark agreement, but so far not a single meaningful detail has been provided. Forgive me, but for years every time there’s a tragedy Wal-Mart officials have made promises to improve the terrible conditions in my country’s garment factories, yet the tragedies continue. With all due respect, the time for empty promises is over.”
Wal-Mart’s board has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal, adding that its adoption “would not be in the best interests of our company or its shareholders.” The company added that holding a meeting at the behest of 10 percent of shareholders “would be a costly undertaking.”
Note: Proposal No. 5 was voted down along with all other shareholder proposals.
Originally Published JUNE 07, 2013