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Wal-Mart Meeting Spurs Protests Over Low Pay, Safety Issues

Retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores' annual shareholders' meeting this week showed signs of the company's recent turbulence, as protesters assembled at corporate headquarters to shout slogans and demands.

Despite a court-issued restraining order, the protesters, including workers who are on strike, decried low wages and called for better safety procedures for supply-chain workers. And some of their views were heard inside the meeting, as well.

The strikers were in Bentonville, Ark., with the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the labor group OUR Walmart.

Inside the meeting, the lineup of speakers included "former Bangladesh child garment worker turned activist Kalpona Akter, as Jacqueline Froelich reports for Newscast, from Arkansas member station KUAF.

Akter took the stage to deliver a speech recommending the adoption of Proposal No. 5, a measure that would give shareholders of 10 percent of common stock the ability to call a special meeting. Such meetings would be useful, she said, in crafting responses to incidents such as the recent collapse of the the Rana Plaza garment factory complex, which killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh.

After that tragedy, several large European clothing companies said they will band together to create a program for inspecting factories and ensuring safety upgrades to protect workers. Last month, Wal-Mart said it would not be part of that effort, preferring instead to create its own plan, as The Two Way reported.

That didn't satisfy Akter, who noted that repairs that would make the company's factories safer had been deemed too expensive, despite equaling "just two tenths of 1 percent of the company's profit last year."

"Forgive me, but for years every time there's a tragedy Wal-Mart officials have made promises to improve the terrible conditions in my country's garment factories, yet the tragedies continue," Akter said. "With all due respect, the time for empty promises is over."

Wal-Mart employs more than 2 million people around the world, according to the company. It generated sales of around $466 billion in fiscal year 2013. Friday, Wal-Mart executives unveiled a plan to buy back $15 billion in stock.

Despite appearances by celebrities Hugh Jackman, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, and Tom Cruise, Wal-Mart's 2013 meeting brought serious concerns along with the company's celebration.

"This year's shareholders' meeting comes at a time of turmoil for the world's largest retailer, which finds itself dealing with empty shelves, labor unrest, bribery scandals and tumbling sales," as Daily Finance reports.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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