Wal-Mart's annual shareholder meeting took place Friday. And the company would very much rather you pay attention to the fancy celebrities it paid to show up and smile for the cameras than to the working conditions in its sweatshops!
Women's Wear Daily called the shareholder meeting "a high-octane, entertainment-filled spectacle with moments devoted to business." In case those present might have been tempted to ask questions about Wal-Mart's business practices — such as the 1,129 people who were recently crushed to death at a Bangladeshi facility that produced clothing for Wal-Mart, or the company's subsequent refusal to sign an international safety accord that would prevent such disasters in future — lots of famous people were on hand to keep the focus on the important stuff. Like master of ceremonies Hugh Jackman's hair! And Surprise Celebrity Guest Tom Cruise! He took the stage and said:
"I’ve wanted to come here for quite some time, actually,” the actor said, “because the culture you have here is like no other. I truly admire your company. [It’s] a role model for how business can address some of the biggest issues facing our world.”
Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Prince Royce, and Jennifer Hudson also performed during the meeting. Can you even imagine the talent budget?
Kalpona Akter, the Bangladeshi labor activist and former garment worker, did manage to address the gathering. Akter spoke at the invitation of an activist Wal-Mart shareholder named Jim McRitchie. Alongside Sumi Abedin, a garment worker who survived the fire at the Tazreen factory — another Wal-Mart supplier — that killed 112 of her coworkers, Akter presented a proposal sponsored by McRitchie. WWD reports:
Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity, proposed giving shareholders the right to convene emergency board meetings. Referring to the tragedies in Bangladeshi factories, she said, “Wal-Mart’s supply chain is out of control.” Addressing Rob Walton, chairman, Akter said, “Fixing factory buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family’s wealth. You have the power to do this very easily. Don’t you agree the factories where Wal-Mart products are made should be safe for the workers? Forty-two companies have already signed an accord that represents a real commitment to worker safety. Wal-Mart is only one of a few retailers that refused to sign. Wal-Mart p.r. said [it has] an alternative agreement, but not a single meaningful detail has been provided. Every time there is an accident, Wal-Mart officials make a promise to improve the terrible conditions in my country’s factories. Apparel workers are dying by the hundreds. Could there be any more clear reason for an emergency meeting?”
The proposal — which would have allowed Wal-Mart shareholders who own 10% or more of the company to call emergency board meetings on issues of corporate governance — failed, like all the other shareholder-initiated proposals. Those promoted by the board all passed.
But, as the Wall Street Journal reports, an unusually high percentage of shareholders voted against C.E.O. Mike Duke, board chairman Rob Walton, and company audit committee chairman Christopher Williams — more than 10% in each election. Wal-Mart board members typically garner 98% approval or more, making this something of a protest vote.
Akter also said:
"Wal-Mart commissioned labor rights audits at one of these factories, yet the hazards that ultimately killed workers were never addressed. Now Wal-Mart executives have stated the repairs needed to make our factories safe are too expensive, yet the costs would be just two tenths of 1 percent of the company’s profit last year, and just 1% of the dividends paid out last year to the Walton family heirs.”
The Walton family is worth $93 billion.
Wal-Mart, along with Gap Inc., has said it will not sign the legally binding safety accord for Bangladesh, pleading liability issues.
Just so we're clear: money spent hiring A-list celebrities to do a song-and-dance at the annual meeting? Appropriate use of shareholders' funds.
Money spent to bring your factories up to safety code so that 1300 people don't die sewing your clothes on wages of $37/month? Inappropriate use of shareholders' funds.