Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price

I am still angry after watching the documentary. It was thorough and left no stone unturned when it came to exposing Wal-Mart's exploitative and abusive behaviour. The film starts with a speech by Lee Scott, Wal-Mart CEO, at a conference and various soft -focus Wal-Mart advertisements; interspersed with real life stories from former "associates" (Wal-Mart doesn't like using "employees").

The viewer is taken on a global expedition to countries where Wal-Mart exists. In the UK, we have Asda, which is part of the Wal-Mart empire. In Newham, the Queens Road market, which is 105 years old, is likely to be demolished to make way for an Asda. Market stallholders have been campaigning and petitioning the Blairite Newham council to stop this development. There is already an Asda in the area, so why are they desperate to build another one?

Grim statistics are presented while the viewer is entertained by Lee Scott maintaining that "associates" are treated well when in reality this is far from the case.

Pay and Conditions: low pay and fiddling the time cards
Wal-Mart drives down retails wages by $4.7 billion every year (UC Berkeley Labor Center)

In 2004, Wal-Mart employees were costing the taxpayer in California $86 million annually due to public assistance programs.
(Hidden Costs of Wal-Mart Jobs, UC Berkeley Labor Centre)

Former employers stated in the documentary that they couldn't afford Wal-Mart's own insurance. So they were encouraged to go on welfare by management. Wal-Mart denied this but it is backed up internal documents.

Former managers were informed on many occasions to keep the number of employees from being full-time, as many as possible by keeping them part-time.

In Texas it is estimated that Wal-Mart workers have been cheated out of up to 1 hundred and fifty million dollars in unpaid wages.

In the documentary, former managers gave examples of deleting time from workers' time cards.

This also reminded me of one of the chapters in Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed, which was about working for Wal-Mart. In the chapter, she wrote about their "time theft" policy. In other words if you are not working constantly on the job then you are stealing from them! That really is a joke considering that the pay is a pittance, they watch your every move and well, it is enough to instil fear and demoralisation.

Wal-Mart settled a class action suit for $50 million in Colorado for 69,000 current and former Wal-Mart workers who had worked off the clock.

There were many women in this documentary who couldn't make "ends meet",once they paid the bills, housing and child care. Wal-Mart just didn't pay. One woman said that once she got her pay check she paid it back to them as she did her shopping at Wal-Mart and couldn't afford to shop anywhere else.

Average earnings annually of an associate: $13,861
Annual earnings of Scott Lee, Wal-Mart CEO: $27,207,799

Equal Opportunities: Discrimination all the way
Black and women former workers spoke of racism and sexism. One Black woman asked her manager why she kept being passed over for promotion. The manager’s reply was that there was “no place for people like you in management”. One former manager said that women were described as “useless”.

Wal-Mart is facing a class action lawsuit brought by current and former women workers claiming discrimination. (Liza Featherstone – “Selling women short” 2004)

Global exploitation
One of the most poignant scenes is from a Chinese woman, based in Wal-Mart’s factory in Shenzhen. You glimpse the squalid dorm these workers live in and the rent is docked from their wages.

The woman called, “Princess” spoke of the inhumane working conditions such as the oppressive heat and the lack of fans. Her day starts at 8am and finishes at 10pm. She rarely gets to see her boyfriend.

She faces the camera and asks Wal-Mart customers to think what she and her co-workers are put through to produce the items they buy.

It is a similar story in Bangladesh while an ex-manager, who was based in Honduras, believed in the “Wal-Mart dream”, was sacked. His crime? For speaking out against inhumane working conditions.

No need for unions as we are family…
Ex-managers spoke about watching out for potential union activists and ex-workers spoke of keeping out of the way of these “bolshie” individuals. Wal-Mart have a unintentionally hilarious corporate video explaining why unions are bad because they “take your money”. That is rich coming from Wal-Mart.

$7,000 anti-union cameras per store
$30,000 spy van per store
$100,000 24 hour anti-union hotline
$7,000,000 rapid response team with corporate jet

Workers and shoppers have been attacked and killed in the car park area as there is no security. The security cameras are inside the stores watching out for union activity.

The all American Walton family: money grabbing corporate capitalists
What of Walton family? And I am not talking John Boy Walton but a bunch of exploiters who all live in luxury pads and even have a bunker!

Matriarch Helen Walton is worth $18 billion
They donate 1% of their profits to charity while Bill Gates donates 58%.
But they contribute $3.2 million in political contributions
In 2004, fellow workers donated $5million to a hardship fund while the Walton family donated….. the princely sum of $6,000.

The people strike back!
Wal-Mart receives millions to set up shop, tax cuts and subsidies. Once in position they hoover up the competition in no time at all. The place becomes a ghost town.

But it is not all doom and gloom as campaigners in towns in Arkansas and California successfully stopped Wal-Mart moving in. As a woman campaigner asks, how can the Walton family be Christians when they make profits off the backs of the poor.


Workers of the world…
The faceless, invisible low paid workers are the ones who are the bedrock of the economy. These exploited people who cannot make ends meet while Wal-Mart’s founders are billionaires. Only 25.5% of American workers have a job that pays at least $16 per hour and provides health insurance and a pension. Wal-Mart could easily provide insurance and pension but instead encourages workers to ask for public assistance. And now there are actions against Wal-Mart regarding fiddling pay and discrimination cases.

There was one good piece of news regarding pay in the UK where
health workers in Cumbria won their equal pay case. Workers had at last won recognition for what they do .

Barbara Ehrenreich concludes that the low paid will, “tire of getting so little in return and demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end”.

(Nickel and Dimed: undercover in low-wage USA)

And it seems that workers are tiring of the exploitation as Asda/Wal-Mart workers are balloting for strike action

The GMB are holding screenings of this documentary

Information about the documentary and the ongoing campaigns against Wal-Mart

United Food and Commercial Workers

Barbara Ehrenreich