June 1, 2011
By Stephanie West
A Bangladeshi garment worker, Kalpona Akter, who worked for a Wal-Mart subcontractor before she was fired for union activity, will represent the New York City Employees Retirement System (NYCERS) before the Wal-Mart Board of Director at their annual meeting in Arkansas this week. With the support of New York City Comptroller and NYCERS Trustees including TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen, Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd, and DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, Akter will call on the giant merchandiser to implement a tough, independently verifiable “sustainability report” which would disclose, for the first time, the behavior of Wal-Mart’s thousands of suppliers.
Wal-Mart, which has fiercely fought unionization in the United States, relies on brutal repression of labor activists in the third world countries where the bulk of its products are made. Speaking before the NYCERS Board, which holds in trust assets including $316 million of Wal-Mart stock, Kalpona described her life as a garment worker beginning at the age of 12. “When I started,” she said, “I used to get $6 per month for 208 hours of work. I slept on the production floor.”
“Then in 1994 we had a strike in my factory. I found a second life organizing workers. But then, along with many co workers I lost my job when I tried to form a union and was blacklisted.” She and others formed the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity to confront the country’s garment workers association.
“We had 2000 factories when I started to work,” she said. “Now there are 5,000, with four million workers. 85% are female. The factories bring 76% of Bangladesh’s foreign currency into the country; it’s the backbone of our economy. But our workers are still making a poverty wage of $42 per month for 208 hours work. The money only pays the cost of living for a woman and two children for half a month,” she said.
Among those paying those wages are two major Wal-Mart subcontractors. When Akter and other workers demanded a pay hike to $72 dollars a month, they were “threatened, beaten, and jailed,” she recalled. Arrested with other unionists on August 13 of last year, Akter was charged on 11 counts of “fomenting and/or participating in garment worker unrest,” according to a letter sent to Mike Duke, the CEO of Wal-Mart, last February by 18 Members of Congress and labor activists including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and New York’s Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler. The letter notes that Akter and her fellow activists could face the death penalty if convicted on the charges.
In spite of requests to ask the Bangladeshi government to drop the charges, Wal-Mart has remained silent. “Wal-Mart does not give workers the right to organize in the workplace, to raise their voices,” Akter said. “Wal-Mart has a code of conduct, but it is not complied with in the factories. Instead, management coaches workers to lie when the auditors come to the factory. Workers have to work 14 or 15 hours a day, and management makes double documents – one set for the auditors, and one for themselves,” she charged.
Comptroller Liu noted that 48% of Wal-Mart stock is owned by the Walton family, “so we don’t expect to get a majority of votes at the shareholders meeting. But Wal-Mart can’t claim to be that bright yellow smiley face that you see all over the place when they do this to workers. These people have been fired, threatened, assaulted, intimidated, arrested and face life in prison or the death penalty for speaking out about workplace safety and worker rights.”