Changing the Conversation: Press Coverage and the 2013 Walmart Annual Meeting

Kalpona Akter BentonvilleKalpona Akter, a leading sweatshop critic in Bangladesh, addresses shareholder’s at Walmart’s annual meeting in Arkansas.

Walmart’s annual shareholder’s meeting is historically covered as a pep rally. Walmart is known for bringing A-list celebrities and packing the Bud Walton stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas with a hand-picked crowd of at least 14,000 supporters. This year the contrast between the story Walmart likes to tell and the story that played out was stark.

Both Kalpona Akter, herself a former child garment worker and Janet Sparks, a Walmart employee from Louisiana, delivered speeches supporting two separate shareholder proposals. The women highlighted Walmart’s responsibility to workers domestically and abroad.

The following are key passages from major news outlets’ coverage of the June 7 shareholder’s meeting:

Walmart Yearly Meeting Follows a Narrow Script
The New York Times

Wal-Mart, in what appeared to be an attempt to counter employee and union complaints about thin staffing and low wages, centered the meeting on extolling the value of its employees.

As is common for Wal-Mart at these meetings, executives barely made mention of recent controversies, including issues of employee staffing and the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers where Wal-Mart was shown to be producing garments. In addition, there is still the continuing investigation into potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Mexico and other countries, after The New York Times reported last year that company officials at Wal-Mart de Mexico bribed officials to ease expansion in that country, and executives at headquarters were told of the bribery and declined to take action.

But that did not mean those issues did not come up.

During the brief portion of the meeting where shareholders could present proposals, criticisms were strong.

One presenter asked why Wal-Mart had not joined European retailers in a pact to improve safety standards in Bangladesh.

“The last six months have seen two of the worst disasters in the entire history of the garment industry,” said Kalpona Akter, a union activist in Bangladesh, referring to the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen fire. “Both occurred in buildings where Wal-Mart goods were produced.”

“Don’t you agree that the factories where Wal-Mart products are made should be safe for the workers?” she said.

A shareholder and employee, Janet Sparks, who works at a Walmart in Baker, La., pushed the company on its pay and scheduling policies.

“Times are tough for many Walmart associates, too. We are stretching our paychecks to pay our bills and support our families,” said Ms. Sparks, a member of the union-affiliated employee group Our Walmart.

Referring to the chief executive Michael T. Duke’s $20.7 million in 2012 pay, she said that given the low wages store employees received, “with all due respect, I don’t think that’s right.”

There were cheers and applause from the crowd, a response that could be considered significant because the employees selected to attend the annual meeting are generally big Wal-Mart supporters.

Wal-Mart Renews Buyback Effort
Wall Street Journal

“We have a supply chain that is out of control and a failed safety-inspection system,” said Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker who is now an activist with the group Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. At Friday’s meeting, she presented a shareholder proposal to empower the board to call for a special shareowner meeting to vote on important matters.

“In a country where apparel workers are dying by the hundreds, could there be any more pressing case for a special meeting of shareholders?” she said.

The sourcing controversy followed on an already tumultuous year for the retail giant.

Former Bangladesh Sweatshop Worker to Billionaire Walton Family: Use Your Walmart Fortune to Stop Worker Deaths
Forbes

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 Center for Worker Solidarity, Akter was flown in thanks to a grassroots campaign by labor activists Making Change at Wal-Mart, who raised $9000 on fundraising site Indiegogo. She traveled to Arkansas with Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the Tazreen Factory fire.

Walmart Celebrates at Annual Meeting as Protests Persist
Reuters

“We have a supply chain out of control, and a failed safety inspection system, in a country (Bangladesh) where apparel workers are dying by the hundreds. Could there be any more pressing case for a special meeting of shareholders?” Kalpona Akter.

Rose Campbell, a 58 year old who says she has worked for Walmart for four years, said that she is considered a full-time employee but typically does not get enough hours to work.

She joined OUR Walmart a year and a half ago.

“I’m fighting for my rights to have things better at Walmart,” said Campbell, who makes $9.60 an hour in her maintenance job at an Illinois store.

Walmart workers speak out: ‘I do not earn enough. I cannot survive like this’
The Guardian

But this year’s meeting may be less adulatory.

The company is facing pressure at home after a series of strikes and protests over pay and conditions. Walmart’s sourcing from factories with poor safety records is also under fire. Lobby group Making Change at Walmart raised over $9,000 on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to bring to the meeting Kalpona Akter, a former child textile laborer from Bangladesh.

Striking workers from union-supported group Our Walmart are also protesting against pay and conditions outside the event. They will be joined by workers from Walmart’s warehouse supply chain, which has been hit by allegations of poor conditions, wage theft, retaliation against workers who complain and a series of strikes.

Walmart Blocks Protesters, Announces $15B Share Buyback
Los Angeles Times

Warehouse workers from California traveled to Arkansas to join striking Wal-Mart workers at the meeting. Workers are striking to get more full-time hours and because the company retaliated against workers after they criticized the company, organizers said. Among the group traveling to the meeting was Kalpona Akter, a critic of working conditions in the garment industry.

Akter spoke inside the shareholder meeting Friday, calling on Wal-Mart to address worker safety following the collapse of Rana Plaza, the factory that collapsed killing more than 1,100 workers in Bangladesh. The company has come under increased criticism following the tragedies, which reportedly produced some clothing for the company.

“If the world’s largest retailer refuses to address the state of workers’ rights and working conditions seriously, things will not change,” Akter, the executive director of the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity, said in a statement emailed to The Times before she spoke at the meeting.

Additional Clips:

Striking Worker and Bangladesh Activist Address Thousands at Walmart Shareholder Meeting – The Nation

Walmart Meeting Spurs Protests Over Low Pay, Safety Issues—National Public Radio

Walmart Faces Scrutiny on Labor as Investors Gather for annual Meeting – Associated Press

Walmart Faces Scrutiny as Investors Gather – AP (CNBC)

Walmart Shareholders Question Mexico Bribe Scheme – Bloomberg

Walmart Annual Meeting: Glitz, Songs, Stock Buyback, Protests – Reuters

Walmart Under Fresh Fire from Investors – Financial Times

Why Walmart Won’t Change – Forbes

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