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Bangladeshi labor rights activist calls out Walmart at annual investor meeting

Kalpona Akter challenged Walmart's Rob Walton to join a binding safety accord that would change the way his company does business in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Savar roses May 2013Enlarge
A Bangladeshi family member of a missing garment worker places roses on the barbed wire fence as she pays tribute to the victims at the site of the April 2013 collapse in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka on May 24, 2013. Industrial disasters since November have killed at least 1,250 workers, highlighting the appalling safety problems in the plants where three million workers toil for a basic monthly wages of $40, among the world's lowest. (Munir uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)

Bangladeshi labor rights activist Kalpona Akter silenced the crowd at Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting Friday in the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas.

The largely jubilant crowd was deflated when Akter presented a proposal demanding that Walmart commit to worker safety, just a day after Bangladesh’s finance minister promised to improve working conditions in the garment industry but rejected calls for public money to build safer buildings.

A former garment worker and now the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, Kalpona addressed the chairman of Walmart’s board of directors, and son of founder Sam Walton, “Mr. Rob Walton, I am sure you are aware that fixing these buildings would cost just a tiny amount 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 Walmart products are made should be safe for workers?”

Akter’s confrontation was an effort to pressure Walmart to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a response to recent garment factory tragedies in Dhaka including the April collapse of Rana Plaza which killed more than 1,100 people.

The binding accord was drafted by a group of investors with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), and detailed in a June 6 Investor Statement on Bangladesh.

It calls for companies to join the initiative and commit to strengthening local trade unions, ensure a living wage for workers and to publicly disclose all suppliers, as well as the programs in place to uphold the safety and health of all laborers.

Since its announcement on May 16, 2013, 40 companies have joined the accord. ICCR learned this week that five North American trade associations, including Walmart, were not only resisting the initiative, but drafting an alternative initiative titled “Safer Factory Initiative.” Details on the alternative initiative have yet to be released.

“Walmart’s refusal to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh shows the company’s true lack of concern for workers in Bangladesh,” Akter said by email. “Instead of joining an agreement signed by more than 40 major brands and retailers and endorsed by worker representatives in Bangladesh, Walmart has chosen to support yet another voluntary initiative that will do nothing to change the status quo for workers at its Bangladesh suppliers.

As long as Walmart decides to pursue [its] own corporate-driven schemes and refuses to make meaningful commitments to improvements, Bangladesh garment workers will continue to die in preventable tragedies like what we have seen at Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions.”

Jonas Kron, senior vice president and director of shareholder advocacy for Trillium Asset Management, is one of the investors who participated in the drafting the accord. GlobalPost spoke with him Friday for some insight into the group that is pushing for corporations to drive positive social change:

Rebecca Sanchez: Tell me a bit about how the ICCR and the group of investors came to draft the accord, and how you are all feeling about the response to it so far.

Jonas Kron: We are strongly supportive of the accord and I think the concerns we have with this new initiative basically come down to the question of enforceability — that the companies can be held accountable for their commitments. The role of unions in civil society organizations is to determine whether they have adequate representation to ensure, on their own behalf, workers' safety and workers' rights. And that’s one thing for investors to come in and press for: these safety measures and workers' rights.

It’s another thing to really be emphasizing the need to secure a place at the table for those workers so that they can secure those rights for themselves. There’s a level of transparency that we feel strongly about, as well, in the accord, and we’re concerned that this new initiative doesn’t have that level of transparency. Last but not least, we’re concerned about a division of the efforts and whether having two efforts is really going to be a productive way to move forward.

RS: In regards to the Kalpona Akter’s speech today at the Walmart meeting, do you know if the group has any intention of reaching out to her or working with her in any way?

JK: I’m not aware of any ICCR organized interactions with her right now. I know that there have been some discussions about investor briefings with her but I haven’t been part of organizing those.

RS: To your knowledge, would any of the investors who signed the accord be willing to, or have any plans to give some sort of push-back against those few companies who have resisted and decided instead to form a second initiative?

JK: I know that there are active dialogues going on with a number of companies. Because I haven’t been part of those dialogues, I don’t want to say who has been talking to who, but I think it’s safe to say there are ongoing conversations happening to express our concerns about this initiative.

RS: How optimistic are you that some of the few remaining companies will sign on, and that all companies will actually implement the actions of the accord?

JK: I think we have a great deal of confidence in the accord. There are already 40 companies and retailers that have adopted it, and for that matter, I believe, have already started working on it. And so I think it is well underway, and we’re confident that it will progress this way.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/rights/bangladeshi-labor-rights-activist-calls-out-walmart