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Striking Workers, Bangladeshi Activist Challenge Wal-Mart on Labor Conditions at Stores & Factories

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As celebrities including Tom Cruise and Hugh Jackman celebrated Wal-Mart at its annual meeting last week, workers and activists converged to demand sweeping changes at the company’s U.S. stores and global factories. Around 100 striking workers with the group OUR Walmart arrived in a caravan from across the country to protest what they allege to be retaliation against those seeking to change company practices on wages, safety and unions. Kalpona Akter, a workers’ rights activist from Bangladesh, urged Wal-Mart to stop rejecting new safety standards after the Dhaka building collapse that killed over 1,100 workers in April. Wal-Mart is one of only a few major retailers that have refused to sign onto an industry-wide agreement that establishes legally binding protections for garment workers. On the heels of bringing her demands to Wal-Mart shareholders, Akter joins us to discuss the campaign for improved safety standards in factories used by Wal-Mart and other major retailers. A former garment worker from the age of 12, she is now executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. We’re also joined by Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which investigates working conditions in factories around the world, and by Josh Eidelson, a journalist covering labor issues for The Nation who reported from the Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting last week.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: The annual shareholders’ meeting of the retail giant Wal-Mart was held last week in the company’s home state of Arkansas. Thousands of Wal-Mart workers were flown in for a week-long celebration of the world’s largest retailer. In some ways, it resembled a major Hollywood event. The singers Jennifer Hudson, Elton John, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend all made appearances. The actor Hugh Jackman served as master of ceremonies for Friday’s meeting inside a sports arena named after Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton. To the cheers of thousands of spectators, the actor Tom Cruise took the stage praise on Wal-Mart’s global reach.

TOM CRUISE: Very pleased to be here. I truly admire your company, you know, and the more I learn about everything that you do, I’m inspired by what you all create every day, you know, because your company—I’m sure you all know this, but it is a role model for how business can address some of the biggest issues facing our world, you know, in ways big and small. And all around the globe, Wal-Mart is taking the lead and making a difference. And that’s something I really admire. You know, that this company does is it’s using its size and scale to improve women’s lives across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: But amidst the celebration of Wal-Mart, there also came protest. The group OUR Walmart brought its demand for the company to commit to giving workers full-time employment and a minimum salary of $25,000 a year. Around a hundred striking workers staged a series of actions after arriving in a caravan from across the country. They have walked off the job in Florida, Massachusetts, California, to protest what they allege to be worker retaliation against those seeking to change company practices on wages, worker safety and unions. Although small in size, it’s Wal-Mart’s longest strike to date. Inside the shareholders’ meeting, the workers and activists took advantage of a brief window to present non-binding resolutions before thousands of their colleagues as well as the company’s top executives. The measures were all defeated, because the founding Walton family still owns more than half the company’s stock. Janet Sparks, a Louisiana Wal-Mart employee, drew applause when she compared the wages of struggling U.S. workers to CEO Mike Duke’s $20.7 million paycheck.

JANET SPARKS: We all know that times are tough for many of our customers. But I want you to know that times are tough for many Wal-Mart associates, too. We are stretching our paychecks to pay our bills and support our families. … So when I think about the fact that our CEO, Mike Duke, made over $20 million last year—more than 1,000 times the average Wal-Mart associate—with all due respect, I have to say, I don’t think that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Also speaking out there was Kalpona Akter, a workers’ rights activist from Bangladesh. She urged Wal-Mart to stop rejecting new safety standards after the Dhaka building collapse that killed over 1,100 workers in April. Kalpona Akter made a direct appeal to Wal-Mart Chair Rob Walton.

KALPONA AKTER: Mr. Rob Walton, I’m sure you know that these fixing buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family wealth. So I implore to you, 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? For years, every time there is an accident, Wal-Mart officials have made promise to improve the terrible conditions in my country’s garment factories, but the tragedies continue. With all due respect, the time for empty promises is over.

AMY GOODMAN: Wal-Mart is one of only a few major retailers that have refused to sign on to the new safety standards after the Dhaka tragedy.

For more, we’re joined now by Kalpona Akter herself, just back from attending the Wal-Mart meeting, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. She started work in garment factories when she was 12. She’s currently in the United States to call on retailers like Wal-Mart, The Gap and Disney to take the lead on improving working conditions in Bangladesh. And we’re joined by Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which investigates working conditions in the factories around the world.

We contacted Wal-Mart to join us, but they said they were unavailable. The Gap did not respond to our request for an interview.

Kalpona Akter, what about the response to what you had to say in the Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting?

KALPONA AKTER: The response was, I would say, it was zero, which was expected, because this Walton will not get back to you when it has come the time to pay the workers or improve the working conditions. So, they didn’t respond at all. But our point was, the people need to be heard. These Waltons and the Wal-Mart other shareholders, they should know from us, from the firsthand information, that—what’s really going on there. They shouldn’t just close their eyes and say, or just wash their hand and say that, “Well, we didn’t know that,” or, “It wasn’t our fault. It was our sourcer who was killing these workers” in—back home.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Wal-Mart said no one from the company was able to join us today, but it sent us a statement that said, quote, “Some media reports have given the impression there was production for Walmart happening in Rana Plaza at the time of the tragic building collapse. That’s wrong. Our investigation … after the collapse revealed no evidence of authorized or unauthorized production at the time of the tragedy.” Meanwhile, in May, Wal-Mart announced it would terminate its contract with Canadian jeans maker Fame Jeans after documents surfaced the company ordered pants from inside Rana Plaza. So, are these satisfactory steps to you?

KALPONA AKTER: It is not. I mean, first, they are sourcing from the outsourcer. And when it has come to say that, “Yes, our products were there,” now they are just saying that, “Oh, we are cutting the contact with our sourcing companies.” I mean, definitely, this is not a satisfactory answer for us. That Wal-Mart should take responsibility. They were producing their clothes in Rana Plaza, but not in the time when the factory collapsed, but they had connection. They could even improve this factory condition. They could prevent these deaths, and Rana collapse would be even prevented.

AMY GOODMAN: There was the fire.


AMY GOODMAN: And then there was the building collapse, two different buildings, two different workplaces.


AMY GOODMAN: Did Wal-Mart refer to any officially from the stage at the shareholders’ meeting?

KALPONA AKTER: It was—you know, I was surprised that they haven’t said any word about this fire and about this building collapse.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people died in the fire?

KALPONA AKTER: In the fire, in Tazreen Fashion fire, it has killed 112 workers and left hundreds injured. And in Rana Plaza, it killed 1,127 and left more than 600 or 700 injured for lifetime. And in that shareholder meeting, they haven’t even given any condolence for those families. They haven’t felt sad. No word for those.

AARON MATÉ: Scott Nova, the wider picture here—can you talk about how companies like Wal-Mart and others use subcontractors to employ people in places like Dhaka?

SCOTT NOVA: Sure. Well, it’s crucial to understand, Wal-Mart and the other big Western retailers didn’t stumble into a worker safety crisis in Bangladesh. They helped to cause that crisis by placing tremendous pressure on their contract suppliers in Bangladesh to produce forever lower prices, giving them overwhelming incentive to reduce production costs by ignoring safety standards. This is the fundamental reason why workers are dying in Bangladesh in factories producing for companies like Wal-Mart.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the safety standards that are being proposed, that The Gap and Wal-Mart have not signed onto, but other corporations like H&M have?

SCOTT NOVA: Well, for the first time in the contemporary history of the global apparel industry, major brands and retailers have signed a binding, enforceable agreement under which they must pay to carry out building renovations, repairs and retrofitting necessary to turn these death-trap factories into safe structures. H&M, the biggest producer in Bangladesh, has signed. Carrefour, the second-largest global retailer after Wal-Mart, has signed. Inditex, the biggest fashion retailer, has signed. But Wal-Mart and Gap refuse to make these binding commitments to clean up their factories in Bangladesh and make them safe.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the commitments, and who wrote this contract?

SCOTT NOVA: The agreement was developed by non-governmental organizations and both global and Bangladeshi labor unions. Under the agreement, the brands and retailers must open their factories up to independent inspections by competent safety experts with full public reports of all inspections. And then they must compel the factories to carry out any and all building repairs and renovations necessary to address safety hazards and make the building safe—installing fire exits, which most of these buildings don’t have, to offer a critical example. They must then leave, cease doing business with any factory that refuses to undertake these repairs and renovations—except the critical point, the brands and retailers have to pay for the repairs and renovations; they can’t place the burden purely on the factory. And if the factories will take the money and undertake the renovations and operate safely, then the brands and retailers have to stay and continue to produce at those factories and support the factory and support the workers.

AARON MATÉ: What would it mean if Wal-Mart signed on?

SCOTT NOVA: Wal-Mart is the second-biggest producer in Bangladesh after H&M. Wal-Mart’s refusal to participate means that there are hundreds of factories and tens of thousands of workers that are outside the protective scope of this accord, which means that the safety hazards in those factories won’t be addressed, the safety of those workers won’t be protected.

AMY GOODMAN: These are some of the voices of workers, shortly after the Rana Plaza disaster, who said the factory owners forced them to go to work even after they found massive cracks in the building’s walls.

RIA BEGUM: [translated] We didn’t want to go up in the factory this morning, but the management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building. Just after that, I sat on my table to work, and the building just collapsed. I couldn’t even leave. I was trapped at my table.

JWEEL ISLAM: [translated] I started my work at 8:00 this morning. At about 9:30, I suddenly heard a strange sound, and I saw the building was collapsing. I then ran through a stairwell and jumped down. I lost consciousness, but I was rescued by others.

HALIMA KHATOON: [translated] Inside at about 9:10 a.m., the building collapsed, and we were trapped inside since then and up to now. It is 10:18 p.m. Eleven hours, we were trapped. We did not want to enter the building, but the owners pushed us to get in and work.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the voices of those workers who escaped the Rana Plaza collapse. I wanted to go to what Wal-Mart and The Gap, these two—and I’m sorry that they wouldn’t join us, but—are saying about not signing onto this contract that other multinational corporations are signing onto.

SCOTT NOVA: Right. Well, one of Wal-Mart’s most astonishing excuses, their claim is that the inspections they themselves do, with no transparency or accountability, will be a faster mechanism for protecting worker safety in Bangladesh—this from a company that has been producing in Bangladesh for nearly a quarter of a century and during that time has done nothing to protect the safety of workers. Gap’s main argument is some abstruse claim about supposed legal liability that they face. It’s a trumped-up claim. Gap’s real concern is that they don’t want to pay the costs of repairing these buildings and making them safe. But even if there is legal liability, the question for Gap is: Are they saying that workers in Bangladesh should continue to die so Gap can be protected from litigation? That appears to be their position.

AMY GOODMAN: And since we just played these voices from the Rana Plaza, Kalpona, again, the documents that surfaced, what, three weeks after, because Wal-Mart was called. They said, “We are not making clothing in this factory now.”

KALPONA AKTER: Yeah, I mean, we found that documents in the rubble. And my colleagues and me, we went there, and we found that. And it clearly says that Fame Jeans was—Fame Jeans, one of the outsourcing of the company—sorry, Wal-Mart—was sourcing clothes from Ether Tex, a factory, was located in Rana Plaza. And there were—when I saw the email in relevant to Fame Jeans and Wal-Mart, I called a person. There was a merchandiser. I called personally to that person to be confirmed that Wal-Mart was there. And he confirmed, “Yes, the Wal-Mart was sourcing from our company last year.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation and talk also about Wal-Mart workers in the United States. Kalpona Akter, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity is her organization. Scott Nova, Worker Rights Consortium. And when I come back, Josh Eidelson will also be joining us, talking about Wal-Mart workers in the United States. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Wal-Mart, we’re joined by Josh Eidelson, journalist that’s covering labor issues for The Nation, has reported from the Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting last week, also a contributing writer for and In These Times. We are still with Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

Josh Eidelson, can you make a link between what Scott and Kalpona are talking about with worker conditions abroad and what’s happening here, this growing movement around Wal-Mart?

JOSH EIDELSON: So, in each case, we see a challenge to Wal-Mart’s business model, a business model that we see the most extreme consequences of in places like Bangladesh. When you talk to some of the workers in the United States, though, what they will tell you is the difference is just a question of what Wal-Mart can get away with. So we see this push down on costs and this active effort to suppress worker organizing, that has consequences that are dramatic and then has daily consequences in terms of the poverty of Wal-Mart workers in the United States. In each case, though, we now see a challenge. And so, we see a strike wave that’s moved through Wal-Mart’s supply chain. We see Wal-Mart retail workers, workers in Wal-Mart contracted warehouses and Wal-Mart workers abroad making common cause in taking on the company.

And we saw that in Arkansas when the strikers came to crash Wal-Mart’s party in Arkansas. One of the most dramatic actions I witnessed there was workers, along with Kalpona Akter, along with international Wal-Mart workers, lining up across from Wal-Mart’s home office headquarters to sing a dirge about the deaths in Bangladesh, to read Bible verses. And as they did this, some of those thousands of Wal-Mart employees that were flown in by Wal-Mart started watching, listening, taking pictures. At that point, Wal-Mart management started leading those workers in the Wal-Mart cheer: “Give me a W! Give me an A! What does that spell? Wal-Mart!” They were having workers do this cheer, as about 50 feet away you had workers chanting, “Which side are you on, Wal-Mart? Are you on the side of safety, or are you on the side of murder?”

AARON MATÉ: Josh, what are some of the key complaints that OUR Walmart has against Wal-Mart? And what do you say to the company or supporters of the company, I imagine, saying, “Well, look, it’s only a hundred workers. It’s a small strike”?

JOSH EIDELSON: So, this absolutely is a small strike. The workers’ main demands have been around wages, which one estimate pegged at $8.81 an hour currently; around healthcare; around staffing, which they say creates problems both for customers and for workers; and around retaliation against workers who organize. Wal-Mart is right to say that this is so far a very small minority of workers who are active. What Wal-Mart is not saying is that Wal-Mart is doing everything in its power to prevent this from getting bigger. We see what, in labor organizing, we call “carrots and sticks.” So, on the one hand, Wal-Mart has begun to make moves at least to appear to address some of these grievances; on the other hand, you have these mandatory captive audience meetings, where the company lectures workers in mandatory meetings about not getting involved. And you have over 150 allegations of illegal retaliation and intimidation against workers to prevent them from stepping up. And so, when Wal-Mart says it’s not concerned, it’s fair to say that they’re bluffing.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what OUR Walmart is.

JOSH EIDELSON: So, OUR Walmart is an organization significantly backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. It’s a part of the array of alt-labor groups that are organizing workers outside of collective bargaining, without demanding collective bargaining, but using mobilization, political, community, legal, media pressure and industrial activism like these strikes, which we have never seen at Wal-Mart in the United States up until last year, in order to try to transform the company’s business model.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Nova, why are you here in New York?

SCOTT NOVA: We are here this week to meet with the comptroller of the city of New York, to participate in an event that he organized for investors, to talk about the enormous risks for investors that Wal-Mart’s reckless policies in Bangladesh are creating.

AMY GOODMAN: This is John Liu, who is also running for mayor.

SCOTT NOVA: Exactly, John Liu. The failure of Wal-Mart and Gap and other retailers to sign onto this critical fire safety agreement is not only, of course, extremely bad for workers, it’s ultimately bad for the shareholders of these companies, because the risk to the reputation of these companies, if there is another fire, if there is another building collapse, is enormous. But the executives are acting recklessly, refusing to acknowledge that risk and refusing to take the steps necessary to protect worker safety in their facilities in that country.

AMY GOODMAN: Kalpona Akter, as you travel the country, do you feel that there’s a different awareness about what’s going on in places like Bangladesh? And are you concerned that if you raise these concerns, that these corporations will just move to the next country?

KALPONA AKTER: In terms of the awareness, yeah, I mean, this is different level of awareness. If we consider like the last five years, I would say that the consumers—I mean, they are the main part of the supply chain, so they are more aware than before. And, of course, many things come—give awareness through the medias. And yeah, so this is really a different level I can see in these days. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of whether Bangladesh—

KALPONA AKTER: Yeah, I mean, this is really a big point, whether the—

AMY GOODMAN: And we have 10 seconds.

KALPONA AKTER: Yeah, whether these companies will be moved. I would say no, because Bangladesh is the world’s cheapest country in these days, and there is no alternative market for these retailers to move. So they should be keep doing their business. But in the same time, they should sign this accord and make a safe working place for our workers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. We’re going to do part two right after the show and post it at Kalpona Akter, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity; Scott Nova, Worker Rights Consortium; and Josh Eidelson writes for The Nation and In These Times and

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