Last Friday, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and America’s biggest welfare queen, held its annual meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas. The activity-filled event attracted workers, shareholders, and executives from all around the world to celebrate their giant profits and company culture.
Over 14,000 people attended the event, including celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé, displaying the retailer’s marketing power and budget. Of course, all of Sam Walton’s heirs were there, flaunting their status as some of the richest and most heartless people on the planet.
However, this year’s meeting was not as celebratory as usual, as Walmart is facing increased pressure from the public after a series of strikes and protests over employee pay and working conditions.
Walmart’s outsourcing of labor to factories in third-world countries with poor safety records is also under fire. Lobbying group Making Change at Walmart raised over $9,000 on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to bring Kalpona Akter, a former child textile laborer from Bangladesh, to the meeting. She was accompanied by Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the deadly fire that killed at least 112 garment workers at the Tazreen Fashion factory on the outskirts of Dhaka last year.
Akter joined others in calling on Walmart to sign a legally binding agreement to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s textile factories, an agreement that has already been signed by many of the company’s rivals following a horrific building collapse in April that left over 1,127 factory workers dead and an entire nation in mourning.
They were joined by workers from Walmart’s supply-chain side, who complained about work conditions and retaliation against anyone who reports these issues, as well as retail-side employees who were protesting such measly hourly wages that they are forced to rely on government subsidized programs such as food stamps and Medicaid benefits in order to feed and sustain themselves and their families.
Here are three of the protesters that made an impact on Walmart at this year’s meeting:
Kalpona Akter, 36, sweatshop critic and ex-child garment worker.
Bangladesh’s textile workers work 11 to 14 hours a day, six, sometimes seven, days a week for $37 a month, says Akter. Conditions are dangerous. A total of 1,239 workers were killed in the recent building collapse outside Dhaka and a factory fire last year, and another 450 were reported ill this week, some hospitalized, after drinking unsafe water at another factory. “Whenever workers try to organise, they are threatened, beaten,” said Akter.
Workers have little choice but to put up with the conditions, she said. “There is truly no alternative,” said Akter. “This is the biggest industry we have.”
She believes it is up to retailers to change conditions but Walmart and Gap are resisting signing a global accord that some of its rivals have signed which promises binding, verifiable safety standards for Bangladesh factories. “This is happening because of a pattern of denial by these giant retailers like Walmart,” she said. “There really will not be any change until they take responsibility,” she said.
Barbara Collins, 37, striking Walmart employee.
Collins has worked for Walmart in Placerville, California for almost eight years, and is a full-time associate. “I was told when I first got hired that I had joined a family. A family that would give me the chance to provide, a family that would respect me and value my work. Unfortunately I soon discovered that was not the case,” she said. “Despite my hard work I soon discovered that Walmart was a place that liked to say one thing and do another.”
She said irregular hours left her unable to pay for healthcare for her family. One week she could work eight hours, the next 40. “Healthcare costs do not change, but my pay and hours do,” she said. She said the instability left her unable to keep up with her premiums. “We need public assistance to survive. Living in low-income housing, relying on food stamps, not being able to afford healthcare, is not my definition of providing a good job,” she said.
Two of her colleagues were fired recently – she believes for criticising pay and conditions. “Associates have the right to speak out without fear of retaliation and we will continue to do so until this company changes course,” she said.
Dulce Garcia, 20, warehouse worker in southern California.
Dulce Garcia works at a gigantic warehouse in the Inland Empire region of southern California. It is an area of America rapidly becoming known as a hub for the supply chains of Walmart and other major retailers.
It is dotted with huge warehouses – some of them exclusively servicing Walmart – that take goods coming in from California ports and put them on to trucks that then head out to drive across America.
It is a tough industry, dominated by third-party logistics firms who often staff their warehouses via employment agencies. It is hard, physical work, using a mostly Hispanic workforce, and is notorious for its low pay, wage theft and loose regulations.
Garcia, 20, has worked in a warehouse since February 2012. Though she dreams of college, she struggles to get by on just $8 an hour, with no benefits. That means she has to take tough choices as she raises her two-year-old son, Christian. “Gas is so expensive. Sometimes I feel that I am only earning enough to pay for the gas that allows me to drive my car to my job,” she said. “I do not earn enough. I cannot survive like this.”
Garcia, whose warehouses packs goods for Walmart and other stores, has also been injured packing and unpacking goods. She was hit by two boxes – each containing three suitcases – and damaged her neck. “The pain was serious, but it was the end of the shift and no one offered to call an ambulance or to find out what had happened, so I drove myself to the hospital. I am supposed to go to therapy because there is still a lot of pain, but I can’t afford it and it’s not like the warehouse is going to pay for it,” she said.
Now she sometimes sees examples of the luggage that hit her on Walmart shelves. “I see the luggage that I move in the warehouse. They are selling it for a lot more than I get paid and treating me really bad,” she said.
Let’s hope that that America’s biggest welfare queens, the Walton heirs, hear the message from these brave individuals and start taking their corporate social responsibilities seriously.