Labor Activist Asks Wal-Mart to Protect Her


Charges Against Kalpona Akter

Akter said an incident on July 30, 2010, in which workers at a factory that makes clothes for Wal-Mart held a demonstration, led to the charges against her. One protester allegedly threw an explosive cocktail in the street close to the factory, while others pulled clothes from inside, brought them to the street and set them ablaze.

The government accused Akter of inciting the protest. But she says she was attending a staff meeting 35 kilometers away from where the incident took place.

"They were saying we were instigating unrest," she said. "We are not."

The cases against her have proceeded slowly. One charge was dropped, but others continue to hang over her.

ABC News sought clarification from the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington about Akter's case. An embassy official who oversees commerce, Shafiqul Islam, replied via email that "it's unfortunate that she is using the case as a plot to her personal benefit and at the cost of Bangladesh's image as a whole."

He said law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh brought charges against Akter because of "their involvement in vandalism on the street (illegal road blockage, destroy of vehicles and so on)." Wal-Mart would not weigh in on her case. Megan Murphy, Wal-Mart's International Corporate Affairs Manager, told ABC News the company has "respect for workers throughout the supply chain."

"In 2010, Wal-Mart joined other leading brands and retailers in encouraging the Bangladesh government to review the minimum wages for workers in the garment industry to ensure worker needs are met as well as a built-in mechanism for a yearly review of the minimum wages," Murphy said.

American-based labor groups believe Wal-Mart has the clout to persuade Bangladeshi officials to drop charges against Akter.

Akter traveled to a Wal-Mart board meeting last summer to seek the company's help, and in her interview with ABC News, specifically noted that she believes Wal-Mart has enough influence to get the charges against her dropped.

"Collectively, the U.S. brands that buy from Bangladesh have the power to put an end to Kalpona's persecution," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor-backed advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

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"Apparel exports represent a huge portion of the Bangladesh economy," Nova said. "Indeed, Wal-Mart alone, which buys a billion dollars' worth of apparel annually from Bangladesh, could put an end to the trumped up charges against Kalpona with one phone call to the government, if it wanted to do so."

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