The CEO of Walmart, Mike Duke, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday evening and on arrival had to pass groups of protesters who had come to demand that Walmart clean up its practices in a number of ways. Labor activists and workers called for Walmart to better respect its workers who are facing retaliation for speaking out on the job in the U.S. International labor rights groups called attention to the conditions of workers in the supply chain, including those working in unsafe factories like the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where 112 people died in a fiery blaze last month. Animal rights activists joined the throng of people outside the Council of Foreign Relations, calling on Walmart to adopt a new animal care policy prohibiting its pork suppliers from confining pigs in gestation crates.
The protesters got the attention of the movers and shakers who came to Duke’s presentation. When Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Bloomberg, introduced the Walmart CEO, he said the “large reception” for Duke was unequaled since the visit of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
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The former chief of the international arm of Walmart, Duke spoke about responsibility -- first of all to serve the customer - and mentioned sustainability and women’s global economic issues as focuses for the company’s future. A moment later the CEO dodged a question about nationwide protests that highlighted workers’ complaints of unfair treatment, saying they caused him no tension.
When asked how the fatal fire in a Bangladeshi factory that manufactured Walmart clothes impacted him, Duke highlighted a push for fire safety improvements in that country’s clothing industry but took no responsibility for the sub-subcontractor that sent orders to the uncertified factory.
As for neighboring India, the Walmart CEO said he is confident that things will work out for the company, which is being investigated by the Indian government for its lobbying in the U.S. Walmart is actively seeking approval to open stores in India’s huge retail market.