Bangladeshi Garment Worker Leads Strident Critique of Walmart and its Empty Public Pronouncements

For Immediate Release

Bangladeshi Garment Worker Leads Strident Critique of Walmart and its Empty Public Pronouncements

Group Takes their Message Directly to Executives at Corporate Headquarters with Art Commemorating the Deaths of 1,200 Bangladeshi Garment Workers

BENTONVILLE - Before taking their message to executives and Walmart’s corporate headquarters, leaders in the call on Walmart to change course detailed serious problems in Walmart’s global supply chain and the megaretailer’s systematic disregard of workers’ safety and rights in a call with national reporters Wednesday.

“Walmart’s pattern is to first deny there is a problem that affects workers and then, when executives can no longer deny the issue, they promise changes that sound good on the surface, but in substance do little, if anything, to address the problems. That’s true for scheduling problems that face associates, extreme temperatures and wage theft facing warehouse workers, safety concerns affecting garment factory and supply chain workers, and for retaliation against warehouse workers and stores workers. Even in addressing the alleged bribery scandal in Mexico, Walmart chooses to throw millions of dollars at the problem, rather than reforming its business practices,” said Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart.  

Kalpona Akter, an internationally recognized sweatshop critic and former child garment worker, said that while increased attention on garment factories in Bangladesh including a flood of visits by American andEuropean elected officials and representatives from the world’s largest retailers gives her promise, Walmart’s refusal to participate could doom the chances for success.

“What happened at Rana Plaza and Tazreen should never have happened, and we can never let it happen again,” said Akter, the executive director of the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity. “But if the world’s largest retailer refuses to address the state of workers’ rights and working conditions seriously, things will not change.”

Akter arrived in the United States Monday after hundreds of supporters raised funds to bring her to Walmart’s annual shareholder meetingto share her concerns with executives and shareholders. Tuesday shareholder Jim McRitchie announced that Akter would be taking his place in speakinginside the meeting about proxy proposal no. 5, which would allow shareholders to call a meeting on critical issues affecting the company. 

Following the teleconference, nationally recognized visual artists from San Francisco and Washington, D.C. assembled an oversized, human-powered, art installation with more than 1,200 pieces of fabric symbolizing the deaths of workers in Bangladesh.

Striking Walmart employee Barbara Andridge, who has been requesting full time hours for years, and Javier Rodriguez, a warehouse worker who was fired in retaliation for speaking out about dangerous working conditions, are two of the 200 workers and their families who arrived in Arkansas Sunday after the week-long “Ride for Respect,” which stopped in nearly 30 cities.Walmart workers are on strike to protest Walmart’s retaliation against them for speaking out for the company to do better.

“Walmart first said there were no problems in the warehouses that move its merchandise, but when workers documented the problems and the state of California issued fines, the company was forced to admit workers were right,” Rodriguez said. “Walmart said it would start monitoring warehouses, but we have seen no evidence this is true. In fact, I was fired in March after speaking up about safety in the warehouse where I worked.”

Andridge, who is on strike from her job at the Placerville, Calif., Walmart, said that worldwide Walmart has shown an unwillingness – and has even attempted to silence those who speak out – to listen to the people who make the company so profitable. She discussed anannouncement on schedulingthat Walmart made in April on the same day that hundreds of workers and supporters called on store managers  to implement fair scheduling policies at locations nationwide.  Still, even as the company spends millions of dollars on an ad campaignabout jobs at the company and OUR Walmart members try to ensure newly proposed policies are implemented quickly and effectively, a new survey shows Walmart employees are largely unhappy with their employer, many long-time employees are not getting the hours they need.

“How many more empty promises can they make?” said Andridge, a mother who relies on public assistance to support her two children. “Walmart is a large company, the largest in the world, but that doesn’t make them above the law nor doesn’t mean they can ignore the difference between right and wrong. Families like mine are struggling all across the country because Walmart chooses to create part-time jobs that don’t let us earn enough, and keep us from getting work elsewhere.”

“Last year Wal-Mart enjoyed $16.9 billion in profits and paid $5.4 billion in dividends, of which nearly half went just to the Walton family,” said Dr. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. “Yet many of Wal-Mart's workers don’t earn enough to make ends meet; many must rely on taxpayer-funded programs such as food stamps. As the single largest employer of U.S. workers, Wal-Mart could easily take the high road with respect to its workforce.

“Wal-Mart is also the single largest employer worldwide—and as such, they along with other multi-national corporations hold the power to implement real change to address safety and work related issues concerning workers around the globe,” Allegretto said.

Forty-one major, international brands have signed onto the Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building in an effort to end senseless deaths and improve working conditions after 1,200 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse and 112 workers were killed in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire. Walmart has refused to sign and instead announced its own non-binding initiative. 

“Walmart has been pledging to take steps to protect the rights of workers in its factories in Bangladesh for more than a decade, but workers keep dying,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, one organization that helped develop the fire safety accord.

“There’s no reason to think that the company’s latest promises will have any more substance than their previous promises,” Nova said.

For photos and video of strikers and their community supporters, visit http://changewalmart.tumblr.com. Or follow the conversation and see photos on Twitter at #Walmartstrikers.

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OUR Walmart and UFCW have the purpose of helping Walmart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Walmart over labor rights and standards and their efforts to have Walmart publicly commit to adhering to labor rights and standards.

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