A presentation of business ethics and international development became a confrontation over Wal-Mart’s business practices when students protested a lecture by a Wal-Mart executive on Wednesday.
Rajan Kamalanathan, the Vice President for Ethical Standards for Wal-Mart Stores, gave an hour-long lecture entitled “Global Business, Ethics, and Partnerships: Defining A New Bottom Line” to about 130 people in Copley Hall’s formal lounge. Meanwhile, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee held an anti-Wal-Mart protest outside in Red Square.
Carol Lancaster, director of the Mortara Center for International Relations, which sponsored the event, had anticipated a lecture about “corporate social responsibility in the broader context of international development,” but the discussion was dominated by questions about Wal-Mart’s questionable labor practices.
“I hadn’t wanted this to be an issues conversation, but it inevitably turned into that,” Lancaster said. “But it was polite and their opinions have a place . . . this is a palace of ideas.”
Bobo Pyitheinkhine (COL ’11), a Burmese citizen, asked a detailed and pointed question about Wal-Mart’s business practices in Southeast Asia.
“I’m really not satisfied with his answer,” Pyitheinkhine said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in Burma that Wal-Mart doesn’t take responsibility for.”
Joe Parker (SFS ’10), who asked about union-busting and conditions in a Dominican factory, also found Kamalanathan’s responses very evasive.
Both learned of the discussion and lecture through a Solidarity e-mail, though Mr. Parker hastened to add that although he was a group member, he was attending out of his own interest.
Kamalanathan acknowledged the audible protest outside by saying lightly, “I see my fan club is out there, too.”
His gave a lecture emphasized Wal-Mart’s ability to help developing countries improve their economic lots and “give back to the communities where we have our suppliers.”
He specifically mentioned Wal-Mart’s new partnership with USAID to improve agricultural supply chains in Central and South America. However, he emphasized that the most important step to building long-term, sustainable solutions was partnering with other companies.
“We are only 10 or 20 percent of the output of any factory’s production, and sometimes we have only a small voice,” he said.
Solidarity’s protest peaked at about 25 people, although member Chessa Hess (SFS ’10) said that the protest reached many people who walked by.
“We are protesting the idea that Georgetown is bringing out a corporate responsibility representative from Wal-Mart, especially because Wal-Mart is infamous for its sweatshops, union-busting, outrageously low wages, bad working conditions and lack of health care,” Hess said. “I don’t understand why a social institution like Georgetown would invite them to promote themselves on our campus.”
The many students and faculty from other D.C. schools and institutions who attended did not share the confrontational intentions of some Georgetown students, though Nick Rajpara, a professor of management at the University of the District of Columbia, was impressed with the “tinge of idealism” and the “revolutionary element” in some of the students’ questions.
-Additional reporting by Marco Cerna