Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, holds its annual meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, on Friday. The giant event attracts workers and shareholders from around the world and is usually a celebration of the company’s unique corporate culture. About 14,000 people are expected at the Bud Walton arena to hear the company’s executives speak. They can also expect to surprised by guest appearances from celebrities such as Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake that show the retailer’s pulling power. It’s also a chance to see the Waltons, Walmart’s founding family and some of the richest people on the planet.
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. She is being 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 will call on Walmart to sign a legally binding agreement to improve working conditions in her country’s textile factories that many of the company’s rivals have signed following a building collapse in April that left over 1,127 dead.
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.
Here are three of the protesters hoping to make 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 luggages 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.
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