As the nation’s largest retailer, second-largest corporation, and largest private employer (with 1.3 million workers), Wal-Mart made headlines this past year at an unprecedented rate. All too often, these headlines revolved around Wal-Mart’s infamous employment practices. While Wal-Mart isn’t the only big box store criticized for its policies, it has become a symbol for much of what is wrong with employers.
Wal-Mart reported a net income of over $11 billion last year—surely plenty of money to remedy some questionable workplace practices—yet stories persist about wage law violations, inadequate health care, exploitation of workers, and the retailer’s anti- union stance. Altogether, some 5,000 lawsuits are filed against Wal-Mart each year, or roughly 17 suits per working day.
Here’s a look back at the year according to Wal-Mart. It’s not pretty. Wal-Mart Documentary: Public Relations Nightmare November saw the release of the film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Through interviews with employees and former managers, the documentary presented a critical view of Wal-Mart’s policies, particularly with respect to treatment of Wal-Mart employees. In response to the film’s release, Wal-Mart hired several former presidential advisers to establish a “rapid-response public relations team.” In December, Wal-Mart formed an advocacy group, called Working Families for Wal-Mart, which was headed by former Atlanta mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young.
Unfortunately for Wal-Mart, this public relations campaign hit a snag in August, as Young told the Los Angeles Sentinel that Wal-Mart should displace traditional mom-and-pop stores. Young elaborated further: “You see those [small store owners] are the people who have been overcharging us, and they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs.” Young resigned hours after the interview was published.
Anti-Union Stance Wal-Mart’s anti-union stance made headlines once again this year. After workers at a Wal-Mart store in Québec successfully unionized, Wal-Mart announced that it would close that store, citing “economic reasons.” Last September, Québec’s labor relations board rejected Wal-Mart’s argument and found that Wal-Mart’s firings were illegal.
Wal-Mart employees had some success this past year in organizing non-union groups. In the fall of last year, Wal-Mart employees in central Florida formed a workers group, the Wal-Mart Workers Association, in an attempt to improve working conditions and air grievances against the company. By January, the group had enlisted approximately 300 employees from 40 stores. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union is among the sponsors of the new group. So far, the group has been able to restore hours cut by the store, reinstate a fired employee, and get the company to install a bike rack—all through non-unionized collective action campaigns.
In November of last year, Wake Up Wal-Mart, a UCFW-sponsored group critical of the retailer, formed a national association, called the Wal-Mart Workers of America, in an attempt to organize Wal-Mart workers, albeit without forming a union. In January, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals handed Arkansas Wal-Mart employees a victory, reinstating a lawsuit alleging that Wal-Mart engaged in anti-union activities.
In August, at the same time Wal-Mart was agreeing to work with Chinese officials to establish unions for 30,000 store employees, the retailer reaffirmed its anti-union stance in North America. Wal-Mart explained that its motivation for permitting unions in China was to comply with Chinese laws, while the company’s critics argued that the move was not done for the interests of workers and instead only demonstrated Wal-Mart’s desire to please its biggest trading partner.
Exploitation of Workers
Last September, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart for violating workers’ rights in foreign countries, alleging that Wal-Mart denied minimum wage, required overtime, and punished union activity. In some cases, workers alleged they were beaten by supervisors. If certified, 100,000 to 500,000 workers could be included. Specifically, the suit alleged that one Bangladesh worker worked seven days a week from 7:45 a.m to 10:00 p.m. without a day off in six months.
In another instance, Wal-Mart was accused of failing to provide adequate safety equipment (gloves) for its fabric cutters and seamstresses overseas. According to one report, in Wal-Mart’s cost-benefit analysis, it was cheaper to wash workers’ blood from clothing before shipping the clothing overseasfor sale than it was to provide gloves.
In any event, Wal-Mart appeared to take notice of the public outcry over rights exploitation. In October of last year, Wal-Mart announced that it would start holding suppliers more accountable for workers’ rights violations. In March, it was reported that Wal-Mart was increasing the number of unannounced inspections at foreign factories. Critics urged the retailer to use outside experts to verify the inspections.
In November, the Office of Inspector General released a report critical of the Department of Labor’s settlement agreement with Wal-Mart over child labor violations, claiming that the Department made “significant concessions” and that “serious breakdowns” in the negotiation and approval of the agreement were present. Under the agreement, Wal-Mart was fined $135,540 for child labor violations occurring between 1998 and 2002. Lawmakers and child advocate groups questioned the agreement’s provision that Wal-Mart would receive 15-day advanced notice before certain stores would be investigated.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf region, Wal-Mart contributed $17 million to the relief effort, in addition to more than $3 million in merchandise, which led one commentator to observe: “A company capable of operating in such a coordinated, humane way should do so not just in a disaster but every day. There is no reason Wal-Mart could not operate in an equally streamlined, well-organized manner to make sure that labor laws (on overtime, child labor, discrimination) are followed. There is no reason its impressive resources could not be marshaled to remedy the daily, ongoing disaster that so many of its workers face: low wages and inadequate healthcare.”
In November, a federal agency affidavit revealed that Wal-Mart executives were aware of systematic hirings of illegal immigrants by Wal-Mart’s cleaning contractors. In 2003, immigration officials conducted a raid on 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states, arresting 245 workers. Wal-Mart settled the case for $11 million in March of last year, but claimed that corporate executives were unaware that illegal immigrants were hired.
Wage Law Violations
In California, some 116,000 Wal-Mart employees joined in a class-action lawsuit against the retailer, claiming that Wal-Mart violated a California law requiring employers to provide an unpaid 30-minute lunch break to employees who work at least six hours. In December, three days before Christmas, California Wal-Mart employees prevailed on their claims in front of a jury, collecting $57 million in compensatory damages and $115 million in punitive damages. The California verdict came on the heels of a $50 million settlement in Colorado and a separate victory in Oregon.
By June, however, lawyers of Wal-Mart employees were back in court, asking for an injunction to compel Wal-Mart to follow the same state lunch-break laws. A California judge has since ordered the retailer to obey these laws and provide compliance reports for the next 3 years. Similar wage and hour class-action suits were filed in other states against Wal-Mart. In January, a Pennsylvania judge certified a class-action lawsuit against the retailer that alleged that workers were not compensated for hours worked—in one instance, one employee claimed 8 to 12 unpaid hours a month, on average.
Wal-Mart denied the allegations, which could include 150,000 Pennsylvania workers, claiming that “Wal-Mart’s policy is to pay associates for every minute they work.” This innovative and progressive Wal-Mart policy was first revealed when Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott made a similar statement in the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which drew the following response from Jon Stewart, host of the television talk show “The Daily Show”: “That’s the best you can do? ‘If you work here, we’ll pay you.’”
Meanwhile, in April, Wal-Mart announced plans that it was testing a “flexible scheduling” policy, which would require workers to shift rotations instead of having steady shifts. Workers claimed that the policy was designed to force full-time workers to change to a part-time schedule, thereby saving Wal-Mart the cost of salaries and benefits.
In May, California Wal-Mart managers were dealt a legal setback when a federal judge refused to certify a class-action lawsuit, saying that the managers’ claims needed to be addressed individually. The lawsuit claimed that managers were illegally exempted from overtime pay.
By the end of the year, the many lawsuits and public outcry seemed to have a slight effect. In August, Wal-Mart announced that it would raise starting wages at one-third of its stores by about 6% in an effort to stay competitive with other retailers. Just weeks after this announcement of a modest pay raise, Wal-Mart was once again making headlines for all the wrong reasons—this time for a Texas class-action lawsuit alleging hour and wage law violations. After letters were sent to Wal-Mart employees inviting them to join the class-action suit, some Wal-Mart store managers allegedly pressured employees, by threat of termination, to hand over the invitations and sign a statement saying that they did not work off the clock.
Lawyers for the Wal-Mart employees have requested that a federal judge order that Wal-Mart cease this practice.
Last October, Wal-Mart announced that it would introduce a cheaper health insurance plan for employees, with monthly premiums as low as $11. Critics questioned whether Wal-Mart was attempting to boost its sagging image by offering health care to more workers while neglecting the quality of the health care itself.
Later that month, an internal memo from a Wal-Mart executive recommending numerous ways to reduce health care spending was discovered by the New York Times. The memo noted that Wal- Mart workers were “sicker than the national population” and tended to overuse emergency rooms instead of visiting doctors. Among the memo’s recommendations to reduce health care spending:
Discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart; one way to accomplish this goal: require that all jobs involve some physical activity Hiring more part-time workers Reducing 401(k) contributions Putting health clinics in Wal-Mart stores All told, as a result of these recommendations, Wal-Mart estimated it would save more than $1 billion in health care costs by 2011. Wal-Mart was apparently so impressed by the executive’s suggestions that it promoted her to head the human-resource division the following April.
In February, the New York Times also revealed several candid internal discussions between Wal- Mart CEO Lee Scott and Wal-Mart managers on a private website. When one Wal-Mart manage rasked the CEO why the company could not provide medical retirement benefits, Scott snapped back that the manager was disloyal and suggested that the manager quit.
In April, the Change to Win labor federation staged demonstrations in 35 cities to protest Wal-Mart’s inadequate health care, with up to 350 protesters reported in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the most significant development over the last year involved attempts by state and city governments to mandate health care for Wal-Mart employees. At the beginning of 2006, the New York Times reported that lawmakers in 30 states were considering legislation that would require large corporations to increase spending on employee health insurance. Maryland would be the first to enact such laws.
In January, Maryland legislators passed the Fair Share Health Care Fund bill, overriding Governor Robert Ehrlich’s veto. The law requires private companies with more than 10,000 employees to spend 8% of their payroll on one of three options for health care: spend the money on health care directly; spend the money on an improved ERISA plan; or pay the money to the state for health care costs. Maryland was the first state in the country to pass such a bill, unofficially dubbed the “Wal-Mart bill” because the company was the only one of the four employers in the state which had 10,000 employees but which was not already spending 8% on employee health care.
Workers’ rights advocates hailed the bill’s passage and, in an attempt to bolster momentum foremployee health care, urged other states to pass similar bills.
In July, however, supports of the movement were dealt a setback when a federal judge invalidated the law, holding that it was preempted by federal law (ERISA). While the ruling only affected the Maryland law, thus preserving similar laws passed in Massachusetts and Vermont, it likely halted states’ efforts to require large employers to provide employee health care. Despite its invalidation, the law did have one positive outcome, as its passage and the ensuing litigation spurred much public debate on the health care issue.
Meanwhile, Chicago was the other major battlefield between Wal-Mart and its governmental critics. In July, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance, by a 35-14 vote, that would require “big box” stores to pay a minimum wage of $10 an hour by 2010, along with $3 worth of benefits. A “big box” store is defined as a store with more than 90,000 square feet that is part of a company that grosses more than $1 billion annually. The 35 supporting votes would be enough to override a veto by Mayor Richard Daley. Daley has until September 13 to decide whether to veto the bill, which would the first veto in his 17-year tenure. Experts believe this type of bill could spread to other communities outside of Chicago, much in the same manner as the Fair Share bill.
Ng??i bi?u tình ?ã t? ch?c các s? ki?n ph?n ??i t?i nhi?u c?a hàng Walmart ? M? trong th? Sáu, ngày mua bán nh?n nh?p nh?t trong n?m, cáo bu?c chu?i siêu th? giá r? này ?ang bóc l?t ng??i lao ??ng. Các cu?c bi?u tình di?n ra nh?m phá ho?i c?n s?t mua s?m trong ngày
Th? Sáu ?en (Black Friday), v?n ?ã b?t ??u t? ngày l? T? ?n di?n ra hôm th? N?m, khi các ho?t ??ng gi?m giá m?nh tay c?a nhi?u c?a hàng ?ã thu hút l??ng khách hàng r?t l?n. Kho?ng 200 nhà ho?t ??ng ??ng ngoài m?t c?a hàng Walmart l?n ? Secaucus, New Jersey, mi?ng hô vang nh?ng thông ?i?p ch?n l?i cái g?i là “m?t t?i” c?a công ty t? nhân v?i l??ng lao ??ng l?n nh?t M?. Walmart có kho?ng 1,3 tri?u ng??i lao ??ng không thu?c v? công ?oàn và h? ???c g?i là “các c?ng tác viên” c?a công ty. Các nhà phê bình nói r?ng l??ng tính theo gi? c?a Walmart ch? d?ng ? m?c xoàng x?nh 8,81 USD, dù r?ng công ty thông báo m?c l??ng g?n 13 USD. “Walmart ?ã h? th?p l??ng xu?ng!” – h? hô lên –
“Tôi ? ?ây vì ng??i lao ??ng ph?i ???c tr? m?t m?c l??ng t??ng x?ng, h? có th? mua ???c th? gì ?ó trong ngày Black Friday và không b? bu?c làm vi?c trong l? T? ?n” – Barry Kushnir, 43 tu?i, m?t công nhân b?o trì ???ng ? New Jersey cho bi?t. Nh?ng ng??i bi?u tình bao g?m nh?ng lao ??ng ?ã vào công ?oàn, các nhà ho?t ??ng ???ng ph? t?i t? phong trào Chi?m ph? Wall… Trong nhóm ng??i bi?u tình không có nhân viên c?a c?a hàng Walmart. Jaclyn Kessel, m?t trong các nhà t? ch?c bi?u tình ? Secaucus nói r?ng các nhân viên chu?i siêu th? s? hãi b? sa th?i và bà tin r?ng s? không có ai tham gia ho?t ??ng bi?u tình. Tuy nhiên s? b?t mãn ? Walmart ?ã có th? nh?n rõ trong n?m nay, v?i các cu?c bi?u tình và ph?n ??i ?ã xu?t hi?n t?i h?n 100 thành ph?, theo th?ng kê c?a công ?oàn United Food &
Commercial Workers – UFCW, n?i ?ang v?n ??ng vì quy?n l?i c?a các lao ??ng Walmart. T?i Los Angeles, 9 ng??i bi?u tình ?ã b? b?t vì t?i ch?n l?i vào m?t c?a hàng Walmart ? Paramount. Kho?ng 400 ng??i ?ã tham gia cu?c bi?u tình t?i c?a hàng này. ??n v? chính chính ??ng sau các cu?c bi?u tình, T? ch?c ?oàn k?t ?? ???c tôn tr?ng t?i Walmart (OUR Walmart), nói r?ng h? ?ang gây s?c ép ?? ???c “nh?n m?c l??ng phù h?p, gi? làm vi?c bình th??ng, ch? ?? ch?m sóc y t? v?i chi phí h?p lý và ???c tôn tr?ng”Công ?oàn UAW c?a ng??i lao ??ng làm vi?c trong l?nh v?c s?n xu?t xe h?i c?ng tham gia ho?t ??ng bi?u tình, khi nói r?ng do kích c? kh?ng l? c?a mình, Walmart ?ã có “quy?n l?c r?t l?n v?i kh? n?ng ??nh ra m?t xu h??ng không ch? trong ngành công nghi?p bán l? và d?ch v?
mà còn v?i c? n?n kinh t? M?”.Robert Reich, B? tr??ng Lao ??ng d??i th?i T?ng th?ng Bill Clinton, c?ng bày t? ý ki?n ?ánh giá các ?i?u ki?n lao ??ng ? Walmart ?ã ph?n ánh nhi?u v?n ?? sâu s?c h?n trong xã h?i M?. “S? b?t bình ??ng ngày càng t?ng, ph?n ánh qua kho?ng cách gi?a thu nh?p mà các lao ??ng Walmart ???c nh?n và l?i nhu?n h? mang l?i cho các nhà ??u t? c?a Walmart, bao g?m gia ?ình Walton s? h?u chu?i c?a hàng, ?ã ám ?nh n?n kinh t? M? – Reich vi?t. Walmart tu?n tr??c ?ã ?? ??n lên ?y ban Quan h? Lao ??ng Qu?c gia nh?m ng?n ch?n các cu?c bi?u tình Black Friday.
Hôm th? Sáu, công ty ?ã gi?m nh? ?nh h??ng c?a các cu?c bi?u tình khi nói r?ng ch? có 26 v? bi?u tình x?y ra trong ?êm th? 5 và m?t s? chúng không bao g?m b?t k? “c?ng tác viên nào c?a Walmart”. Công ty c?ng nói r?ng h? ?ã t? ch?c ???c “các s? ki?n Black Friday t?t ch?a t?ng th?y,” bán ???c 1,8 tri?u chi?c kh?n t?m, 1,3 tri?u chi?c TV và 1,3 tri?u món ?? ch?i ch? trong m?y gi? ??u khi s? ki?n di?n ra./. M?t nhà ho?t ??ng tr?ng bi?u ng? ch?ng Walmart (Ngu?n: AFP)
Greedy business practices
Over the past six months, I’ve interviewed a number of workers who’ve expressed similar sentiments. Read worker statements on the Organization United for Respect Facebook page. Yes, they want a living wage and a regular schedule, but the desire to be treated with dignity and respect is just as important as being able to make ends meet. This is why Walmart workers and their supporters in 47 states made history on November 23, also known as Black Friday, by walking out of stores, holding rallies and talking to shoppers about the multi-billion dollar corporation’s inhumane
and greedy business practices.
Walmart workers demand better wages While Walmart’s horrific business practices have been written about and documented for years, this is the first time that workers have walked out of the stores to demand better conditions. Because these brave workers are not unionised, they put everything on the line by walking out, including their jobs.
Now that this movement has exploded, it’s time to get politicians and people with close ties to Walmart to go on the record and state whether they stand with workers like Martha Sellers or with a corporation whose employees have no choice but to go on government assistance because they can’t afford basic necessities.
Walmart, the country’s largest employer, posted $3.64bn in profits for the third quarter alone and has already registered $444bn in sales this year. Walmart heir Robson Walton, whose net worth is $26bn, took in more than $420m in dividends last year, while the average employee makes $8.81 an hour or $15,500 a year. The Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 42 per cent of American families combined. In 2010, CEO Michael Duke’s annual salary of $35m gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in an entire year.
On September 23, at the opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, former President Bill Clinton challenged Duke to open a Walmart in Libya of all places. “If the new president of Libya asked you to open a store in Tripoli, would you consider it?” he asked.
Walmart’s exploitative business model is the last thing Libya needs, which, according to the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), makes billions in profits by forcing workers overseas to stay on the job for 16-18 hours a day with no overtime; paying up to 30 per cent below the country’s legal minimum wage; denying female workers their legal maternity leave and benefits; refusing to provide basic safety equipment; denying workers the right of freedom of association; and requiring workers to get a ticket and permission to use the bathroom.
‘Downward price pressure’
According to the Corporate Action Network, workers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Zambia are standing up to the ongoing exploitation by joining together to demand change through the Walmart Global Union Alliance. On November 26, thousands of Bangladeshi workers took to the streets after 112 workers perished the day before in a sweatshop factory fire while making clothing for a dozen brands, including
Walmart’s Faded Glory clothing line.
According to the ILRF, “Walmart’s constant downward price pressure prevents factories from being able to afford necessary safety precautions and its own supply chain auditing has failed to protect workers from being killed in deadly fires.” Survivors said they tried to run, but the exit door was locked and the fire extinguishers didn’t work. They had no choice but to break windows.
According to the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19bn last year. The base pay for a garment worker in Bangladesh is the equivalent of $37 a month – the same monthly amount it costs to buy food for one person.
Is this what you advocate in Libya, Mr Clinton? Rather than hold the company accountable for ongoing human rights abuses, Clinton sent a video message to Walmart shareholders on June 4 in which he lauded it for its so-called sustainability efforts. Clinton should watch this video from Bangladeshi labour activist Kalpona Akter, who started working in garment factories when she was 12 and now puts her life on the line by exposing and speaking out about deadly working conditions. And what about President Obama? On November 14, just nine days before the Black Friday strikes, Walmart’s Michael Duke and other CEOs met with President Obama to discuss the economy.
In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama told the United Food and Commercial Workers: “I don’t mind standing up for workers and letting Walmart know they need to pay a decent wage and let folks organise… The well-being of their workers should matter to them. Opportunity and justice should factor into their bottom line. That’s not too much to ask for.”
No, it’s not, but so far, there’s been silence from the White House on the strikes. This isn’t getting any attention, but it’s important to remember that on January 20, 2011, Michelle Obama stood on stage with Walmart executives at a community centre in Washington to launch the company’s so-called healthy food campaign in urban areas, which she called a “huge victory for folks all across this country”.
Walmart workers demand right to unionise
Even though it’s incredibly rare for a First Lady to give such a glowing endorsement of a corporation, the announcement received little scrutiny in the progressive media and among liberal organisations. If Laura Bush had endorsed a company that was embroiled in the largest sex discrimination class action lawsuit in US history, there would have been hell to pay, especially from feminist and labour groups. Instead, there was mostly silence. Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle, was one of the few activists to point out the obvious in an
article for Grist:
“It’s remarkable the way Walmart has managed to manoeuver itself on this issue. If you were to rank the factors that have contributed to the disappearance of neighborhood grocery stores over the last two decades, Walmart would be a pretty formidable contender for the top spot. Today it is garnering heroic headlines for saying it will bring fresh food to places that lack it.”
And then there’s Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer, who became Walmart’s 16th board member in June. In a statement, Mayer said she has “long been a customer and admirer of the company. Walmart is an amazing story of entrepreneurship and, as one of the world’s most powerful brands, touches millions of lives every day. I look forward to contributing to Walmart’s continued growth, success, and innovation in the years to come”.
Women’s rights activists were thrilled when Mayer became Yahoo’s CEO because Silicon Valley is still incredibly male dominated and she was hired while pregnant, but her close relationship with Walmart has been ignored. Does Mayer admire Walmart’s treatment of its workers, both in the US and abroad? What does she have to say about the fire in Bangladesh? What about the sex discrimination lawsuit and data proving that Walmart pays women less than men? Will she use her powerful position to push for changes or turn a blind eye to the pervasive problems and continue to
praise the company’s growth?
It’s a shame that reporters with access to Bill Clinton, the Obama’s and Marissa Mayer haven’t bothered to ask these important questions. Multiple emails and phone calls to the Clinton Global Initiative, the White House and Yahoo have not been returned. It’s time to put the pressure on politicians and those with close ties to the world’s largest corporation to go on the record and make a statement about the horrific treatment of workers, ongoing exploitation and the historic actions, which are now global. Let’s hope this movement becomes too big to ignore.
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