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1. HOW WAL-MART IS REMAKING OUR WORLD
Bullying people from your town to China
Corporations rule. No other institution comes close to matching the power that the 500 biggest corporations have amassed over us. The clout of all 535 members of Congress is nothing compared to the individual and collective power of these predatory behemoths that now roam the globe, working their will over all competing interests.
The aloof and pampered executives who run today’s autocratic and secretive corporate states have effectively become our sovereigns. From who gets health care to who pays taxes, from what’s on the news to what’s in our food, they have usurped the people’s democratic authority and now make these broad social decisions in private, based solely on the interests of their corporations. Their attitude was forged back in 1882, when the villainous old robber baron William Henry Vanderbilt spat out: "The public be damned! I’m working for my stockholders."
The media and politicians won’t discuss this, for obvious reasons, but we must if we’re actually to be a self-governing people. That’s why the Lowdown is launching this occasional series of corporate profiles. And why not start with the biggest and one of the worst actors?
The beast from Bentonville
Wal-Mart is now the world’s biggest corporation, having passed ExxonMobil for the top slot. It hauls off a stunning $220 billion a year from We the People (more in revenues than the entire GDP of Israel and Ireland combined).
Wal-Mart cultivates an aw-shucks, we’re-just-folks-from-Arkansas image of neighborly small-town shopkeepers trying to sell stuff cheaply to you and yours. Behind its soft homespun ads, however, is what one union leader calls "this devouring beast" of a corporation that ruthlessly stomps on workers, neighborhoods, competitors, and suppliers.
Despite its claim that it slashes profits to the bone in order to deliver "Always Low Prices," Wal-Mart banks about $7 billion a year in profits, ranking it among the most profitable entities on the planet.
Of the 10 richest people in the world, five are Waltons-the ruling family of the Wal-Mart empire. S. Robson Walton is ranked by London’s "Rich List 2001" as the wealthiest human on the planet, having sacked up more than $65 billion (£45.3 billion) in personal wealth and topping Bill Gates as No. 1.
Wal-Mart and the Waltons got to the top the old-fashioned way-by roughing people up. The corporate ethos emanating from the Bentonville headquarters dictates two guiding principles for all managers: extract the very last penny possible from human toil, and squeeze the last dime from every supplier.
With more than one million employees (three times more than General Motors), this far-flung retailer is the country’s largest private employer, and it intends to remake the image of the American workplace in its image-which is not pretty.
Yes, there is the happy-faced "greeter" who welcomes shoppers into every store, and employees (or "associates," as the company grandiosely calls them) gather just before opening each morning for a pep rally, where they are all required to join in the Wal-Mart cheer: "Gimme a ‘W!’" shouts the cheerleader; "W!" the dutiful employees respond. "Gimme an A!’" And so on.
Behind this manufactured cheerfulness, however, is the fact that the average employee makes only $15,000 a year for full-time work. Most are denied even this poverty income, for they’re held to part-time work. While the company brags that 70% of its workers are full-time, at Wal-Mart "full time" is 28 hours a week, meaning they gross less than $11,000 a year.
Health-care benefits? Only if you’ve been there two years; then the plan hits you with such huge premiums that few can afford it-only 38% of Wal-Marters are covered.
Thinking union? Get outta here! "Wal-Mart is opposed to unionization," reads a company guidebook for supervisors. "You, as a manager, are expected to support the company’s position. . . . This may mean walking a tightrope between legitimate campaigning and improper conduct."
Wal-Mart is in fact rabidly anti-union, deploying teams of union-busters from Bentonville to any spot where there’s a whisper of organizing activity. "While unions might be appropriate for other companies, they have no place at Wal-Mart," a spokeswoman told a Texas Observer reporter who was covering an NLRB hearing on the company’s manhandling of 11 meat-cutters who worked at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas.
These derring-do employees were sick of working harder and longer for the same low pay. "We signed [union] cards, and all hell broke loose," says Sidney Smith, one of the Jacksonville meat-cutters who established the first-ever Wal-Mart union in the U.S., voting in February 2000 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. Eleven days later, Wal-Mart announced that it was closing the meat-cutting departments in all of its stores and would henceforth buy prepackaged meat elsewhere.
But the repressive company didn’t stop there. As the Observer reports: "Smith was fired for theft-after a manager agreed to let him buy a box of overripe bananas for 50 cents, Smith ate one banana before paying for the box, and was judged to have stolen that banana."
Wal-Mart is an unrepentant and recidivist violator of employee rights, drawing repeated convictions, fines, and the ire of judges from coast to coast. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has had to file more suits against the Bentonville billionaires club for cases of disability discrimination than any other corporation. A top EEOC lawyer told Business Week, "I have never seen this kind of blatant disregard for the law."
Likewise, a national class-action suit reveals an astonishing pattern of sexual discrimination at Wal-Mart (where 72% of the salespeople are women), charging that there is "a harsh, anti-woman culture in which complaints go unanswered and the women who make them are targeted for retaliation."
Workers’ compensation laws, child-labor laws (1,400 violations in Maine alone), surveillance of employees-you name it, this corporation is a repeat offender. No wonder, then, that turnover in the stores is above 50% a year, with many stores having to replace 100% of their employees each year, and some reaching as high as a 300% turnover!
Then there’s China. For years, Wal-Mart saturated the airwaves with a "We Buy American" advertising campaign, but it was nothing more than a red-white-and-blue sham. All along, the vast majority of the products it sold were from cheap-labor hell-holes, especially China. In 1998, after several exposes of this sham, the company finally dropped its "patriotism" posture and by 2001 had even moved its worldwide purchasing headquarters to China. Today, it is the largest importer of Chinese-made products in the world, buying $10 billion worth of merchandise from several thousand Chinese factories.
As Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee reports, "In country after country, factories that produce for Wal-Mart are the worst," adding that the bottom-feeding labor policy of this one corporation "is actually lowering standards in China, slashing wages and benefits, imposing long mandatory-overtime shifts, while tolerating the arbitrary firing of workers who even dare to discuss factory conditions."
Wal-Mart does not want the U.S. buying public to know that its famous low prices are the product of human misery, so while it loudly proclaims that its global suppliers must comply with a corporate "code of conduct" to treat workers decently, it strictly prohibits the disclosure of any factory names and addresses, hoping to keep independent sources from witnessing the "code" in operation.
Kernaghan’s NLC, acclaimed for its fact-packed reports on global working conditions, found several Chinese factories that make the toys Americans buy for their children at Wal-Mart. Seventy-one percent of the toys sold in the U.S. come from China, and Wal-Mart now sells one out of five of the toys we buy.
NLC interviewed workers in China’s Guangdong Province who toil in factories making popular action figures, dolls, and other toys sold at Wal-Mart. In "Toys of Misery," a shocking 58-page report that the establishment media ignored, NLC describes:
13- to 16-hour days molding, assembling, and spray-painting toys-8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or even midnight, seven days a week, with 20-hour shifts in peak season.
Even though China’s minimum wage is 31 cents an hour-which doesn’t begin to cover a person’s basic subsistence-level needs-these production workers are paid 13 cents an hour.
Workers typically live in squatter shacks, seven feet by seven feet, or jammed in company dorms, with more than a dozen sharing a cubicle costing $1.95 a week for rent. They pay about $5.50 a week for lousy food. They also must pay for their own medical treatment and are fired if they are too ill to work.
The work is literally sickening, since there’s no health and safety enforcement. Workers have constant headaches and nausea from paint-dust hanging in the air; the indoor temperature tops 100 degrees; protective clothing is a joke; repetitive stress disorders are rampant; and there’s no training on the health hazards of handling the plastics, glue, paint thinners, and other solvents in which these workers are immersed every day.
As for Wal-Mart’s highly vaunted "code of conduct," NLC could not find a single worker who had ever seen or heard of it.
These factories employ mostly young women and teenage girls. Wal-Mart, renowned for knowing every detail of its global business operations and for calculating every penny of a product’s cost, knows what goes on inside these places. Yet, when confronted with these facts, corporate honchos claim ignorance and wash their hands of the exploitation: "There will always be people who break the law," says CEO Lee Scott. "It is an issue of human greed among a few people."
Those "few people" include him, other top managers, and the Walton billionaires. Each of them not only knows about their company’s exploitation, but willingly prospers from a corporate culture that demands it. "Get costs down" is Wal-Mart’s mantra and modus operandi, and that translates into a crusade to stamp down the folks who produce its goods and services, shamelessly building its low-price strategy and profits on their backs.
The Wal-Mart gospel
Worse, Wal-Mart is on a messianic mission to extend its exploitative ethos to the entire business world. More than 65,000 companies supply the retailer with the stuff on its shelves, and it constantly hammers each supplier about cutting their production costs deeper and deeper in order to get cheaper wholesale prices. Some companies have to open their books so Bentonville executives can red-pencil what CEO Scott terms "unnecessary costs."
Of course, among the unnecessaries to him are the use of union labor and producing goods in America, and Scott is unabashed about pointing in the direction of China or other places for abysmally low production costs. He doesn’t even have to say "Move to China"-his purchasing executives demand such an impossible lowball price from suppliers that they can only meet it if they follow Wal-Mart’s labor example. With its dominance over its own 1.2 million workers and 65,000 suppliers, plus its alliances with ruthless labor abusers abroad, this one company is the world’s most powerful private force for lowering labor standards and stifling the middle-class aspirations of workers everywhere.
Using its sheer size, market clout, access to capital, and massive advertising budget, the company also is squeezing out competitors and forcing its remaining rivals to adopt its price-is-everything approach.
Even the big boys like Toys R Us and Kroger are daunted by the company’s brutish power, saying they’re compelled to slash wages and search the globe for sweatshop suppliers in order to compete in the downward race to match Wal-Mart’s prices.
How high a price are we willing to pay for Wal-Mart’s "low-price" model? This outfit operates with an avarice, arrogance, and ambition that would make Enron blush. It hits a town or city neighborhood like a retailing neutron bomb, sucking out the economic vitality and all of the local character. And Wal-Mart’s stores now have more kill-power than ever, with its Supercenters averaging 200,000 square feet-the size of more than four football fields under one roof! These things land splat on top of any community’s sense of itself and devour local business.
By slashing its retail prices way below cost when it enters a community, Wal-Mart can crush our groceries, pharmacies, hardware stores, and other retailers, then raise its prices once it has monopoly control over the market.
But, say apologists for these Big-Box megastores, at least they’re creating jobs. Wrong. By crushing local businesses, this giant eliminates three decent jobs for every two Wal-Mart jobs that it creates-and a store full of part-time, poorly paid employees hardly builds the family wealth necessary to sustain a community’s middle-class living standard.
Indeed, Wal-Mart operates as a massive wealth extractor. Instead of profits staying in town to be reinvested locally, the money is hauled off to Bentonville, either to be used as capital for conquering yet another town or simply to be stashed in the family vaults (the Waltons, by the way, just bought the biggest bank in Arkansas).
It’s our world
Why should we accept this? Is it our country, our communities, our economic destinies-or theirs? Wal-Mart’s radical remaking of our labor standards and our local economies is occurring mostly without our knowledge or consent. Poof-there goes another local business. Poof-there goes our middle-class wages. Poof-there goes another factory to China. No one voted for this . . . but there it is. While corporate ideologues might huffily assert that customers vote with their dollars, it’s an election without a campaign, conveniently ignoring that the public’s "vote" might change if we knew the real cost of Wal-Mart’s "cheap" goods-and if we actually had a chance to vote.
Much to the corporation’s consternation, more and more communities are learning about this voracious powerhouse, and there’s a rising civic rebellion against it. Tremendous victories have already been won as citizens from Maine to Arizona, from the Puget Sound to the Gulf of Mexico, have organized locally and even statewide to thwart the expansionist march of the Wal-Mart juggernaut.
Wal-Mart is huge, but it can be brought to heel by an aroused and organized citizenry willing to confront it in their communities, the workplace, the marketplace, the classrooms, the pulpits, the legislatures, and the voting booths. Just as the Founders rose up against the mighty British trading companies, so we can reassert our people’s sovereignty and our democratic principles over the autocratic ambitions of mighty Wal-Mart. (Jim Hightower, Alternet April 26, 2002 More of Jim Hightower's writing can be found in his monthly newletter, The Hightower Lowdown. For more information, see www.jimhightower.com.)
2. WAL-MART: WORLD OUTLET FOR THE PRODUCTS OF OPPRESSION
Wal-Mart's Connection To Burmese Dictators Challenged
Brutal repression, widespread human rights violations and a government tied to drug thugs has brought international condemnation of the country's dictatorial regime. But the record of the Burmese military dictators was not enough, apparently, to keep Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, from stocking its shelves with garments made in Burma.
Since December 1999, Wal-Mart Canada has imported almost 70 tons of garments from Burma. Despite Wal-Mart claims that it broke its Burma connection in January of this year, records show continued imports from Burma to Wal-Mart as recently as May.
On July 13, 2000, Wal-Mart was identified in a Thai newspaper as buying garments from a factory owned by Burmese drug thug, Lo-Hsing-han. Ever Green Overseas garment company, owned by Lo-Hsing-han is one of three Burmese companies that have shipped garments directly to Wal-Mart over the last year. Wal-Mart claims it does not do business with Burma.
Burma's drug thugs and military dictators are tied together in an economic and political alliance of repression and exploitation. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has condemned Burma for "widespread and systematic" violations of the prohibition on the use of forced labor. Burma has been censured for allowing the modern-day practice of slavery. Drug money and revenue from trade relations with few multinational corporations has kept the regime firmly in place, and riding on the backs of an increasingly impoverished population.
The United States imposed sanctions on Burma in 1997 barring all U.S. investment in the country citing that the country is governed by a "highly authoritarian military regime that is widely condemned for its serious human rights abuses." The State Department points to "money from the trafficking of illicit narcotics" as the likely primary source of income for the rogue nation. http://www.transnationale.org/bd/walmart2.htm
3. WAL-MART'S SHIRTS OF MISERY
(National Labor Commitee, 2000)
When you purchase a shirt in Wal-Mart, do you ever imagine young women in Bangladesh forced to work from 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., seven days a week, paid just 9 cents to 20 cents an hour, who are denied health care and maternity leave; screamed at to work faster; with monitored bathroom visits; and who will be fired for daring to complain or ask for their rights?
At the Beximco factory in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone in Bangladesh, there are 1,000 workers, at least 80 percent of them young women, sewing shirts and pants for Wal-Mart and other retailers. Beximco is a sweatshop, where human rights are systematically violated.
Forced Overtime: 12 1/2 hours × Seven Days a Week × 80-hour Work Week
4. SAIPAN: LAWSUIT CHARGES GAP, WAL-MART, OTHERS FOR SWEATSHOPS (Sweatshop Watch Press Release January 13, 1999)
According to the lawsuits:
* Garments made in Saipan's sweatshops may carry a "Made in the USA" of "Made in the Northern Marianas, USA" label. American consumers are deceived into believing they have purchased a product made by American workers protected by U.S. labor laws, that guarantee a decent wage and a clean, safe work place.
* Last year alone, the federal government estimated that contractors and U.S. retailers avoided more than $200 million in duties for $1 billion worth of garments shipped from Saipan, that would otherwise have been paid for the same clothing if it were manufactured in China or the Philippines. Some Chinese garment interests have moved their textile operations to Saipan virtually "lock, stock and barrel," in large part, to avoid U.S. duties and quota restrictions. The federal government estimates that this increase in Chinese apparel production in Saipan has allowed China to exceed its import quota by 250% in 1997 alone.
* Although Saipan's garment factories are owned predominantly by Chinese and Korean companies, quality-control inspectors from The Gap, The Limited, and other U.S. retailers allegedly oversee the manufacturing process. Still, they have refused to exercise their power to mitigate the intolerable working and living conditions.
* Over 90% of garment industry jobs in the Marianas are held by foreign "guest workers." These and other foreign workers make up more than half of the estimated total Marianas population of 70,000. This is largely due to the Island's exemption from U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws instituted to encourage local economic development. Since 1996, over 200,000 apparel industry jobs were lost in the continental United States.
* With promises of a good job and a new life, workers agree to repay recruitment fees from $2,000 to $7,000. They often must sign "shadow contracts" waiving basic human rights, including the freedom to date or marry.
* The crowded, unsanitary factories and shanty-like housing compounds are in flagrant violation of federal law. The heat in some factories is so extreme it can cause workers to faint. Many live in a room with up to seven other people in inward-pointing barbed wire-enclosed barracks. Their movements are strictly supervised by guards, and are subject to lockdowns or curfews. Complaints about the conditions are met with threats of termination, physical harm, and summary deportation.
"Unfortunately, slavery and indentured servitude is alive and well in the many parts of the world, including the United States," said another lead attorney, William S. Lerach. "Companies like The Gap and Wal-Mart have reaped millions in profits from this scheme -- now they will be held accountable."
Conditions in the Marianas have generated a host of highly critical reports from federal agencies and Congressional oversight. One recent report on the Marianas from the U.S. Department of the Interior sharply criticized "the heavy and unhealthy dependence upon an indentured alien worker program and on trade loopholes to expand its economy."
Garment production in Saipan continues to increase, already exceeding that of Malaysia and Jamaica. Although the legal limit on foreign garment workers is 11,000 recent estimates exceed 15,000, and more factories are being built.
The plaintiffs are represented by a coalition of law firms, including Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach LLP -- class action specialists with principal offices in New York and San Diego. The firm has successfully litigated numerous consumer lawsuits against such companies as R.J. Reynolds ("the Joe Camel" case), Prudential Insurance (for life insurance fraud) and Lincoln Savings (for defrauding depositors).
Most recently, the firm negotiated a $1.2 billion settlement from Swiss banks as reimbursement to surviving families and victims of the Holocaust. They are currently seeking compensation for Holocaust victims forced to work as slave laborers in factories. http://www.transnationale.org/bd/saipan.htm
5. WAL-MART SWEATSHOPS IN HONDURAS (National Labor Commitee, 1999)
"Going into these factories is like entering prison, where you leave your life outside. The factory owners do not let--and don't want--the young workers to think for themselves. They want them to be stupid. The workers need permission to use the bathroom, and they are told when they can and cannot go.
"Young women enter these factories at 14, 15, 16 and 17 years old. They become a mechanism of production, working 9 hours a day plus two, three or four hours overtime, performing the exact same piece operation over and over, day after day. A woman in the pressing department is required to iron 1,200 shirts a day, standing on her feet, her hands and fingers swell up from the hot iron. These young workers rarely last more than six years in the maquila, when they leave exhausted. They leave without having learned any useful skills or developed intellectually. These young workers entered the maquila with a sixth grade education, with no understanding of the maquila, the companies whose clothing they sew or the forces shaping where they fit into the global economy. They soon feel impotent, seeing that the Ministry of Labor does nothing, or almost nothing, to help defend their rights.
Once the women start working in the maquila they often fall into debt. The wages are very low and no one can survive on them." --A Jesuit Priest in Honduras
Factory Conditions in Honduras Where Wal-Mart Clothing is Sewn SUMMARY
Forced overtime--in some factories up to 14-hour daily shifts / occasional mandatory 24-hour shifts, working right through the night / seven-day work weeks / if a worker cannot stay for the overtime, they are suspended without pay or fired.
Forty-three-cent-an-hour starvation wages--the 43-cent-an-hour base wage meets only 54 percent of the cost of survival. Workers sewing Wal-Mart clothing cannot afford to purchase milk, juice, meat, fish, fruit, cereals, or vitamins for their children. Nor can they afford to buy new clothing. Christmas is just like every other day for these families. There is no money for a special meal or even the cheapest of toys to give as gifts to their children.
The majority of the workers are young women--some as young as 14, 15 or 16 years old / The women sit on hard wooden benches, without back rests, in long production lines of 60 or more sewers, for 12 hours a day or more, in a hot, windowless, dusty factory. They enter at 7 a.m. and leave at 7 p.m. when it is already dark. They are not allowed to talk, and they need permission to use the bathroom, which is monitored and limited. Everyone works by piece rate, repeating the same sewing operation 1,200 to 1,500 times a day. Often loud music is blasted in the factory, as if it will make the women work faster.
Humiliation--It is common for the supervisors to scream and yell at the workers to go faster, and even to throw the garments in the women's faces if they see so much as a loose thread.
Denial of sick days and health care--Permission to be absent is almost never given, even if there is a sick child at home that requires care. Though money is deducted from the workers' wages, they are rarely allowed to use the Social Security health clinic during working hours. Many factories simply cheat the workers by illegally pocketing their Social Security deductions. It is also common to be shortchanged of the legal vacation period.
There is absolutely no right to freedom of association--The right to organize is totally denied. Anyone even suspected of organizing a union is immediately, and illegally, fired. The workers do not even have the right to meet so they can learn their rights, let alone raise a grievance.
No worker in these factories ever heard of the Wal-Mart Code of Conduct--Once again, the so-called Wal-Mart human rights screening of contractors, their Code of Conduct and its implementation, in reality is completely phony. Once again, it is a failure.
If Wal-Mart actually believed in human rights, and they were not trying to cover up serious abuses, they would provide the American people with the names and addresses of the factories they use in Honduras and other countries around the world.
Wal-Mart must be made to comply with all local labor and human rights laws in Honduras. www.transnationale.org/bd/walmart_honduras.htm
Wal-Mart profile (brands, shareholders, subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands, sub-contractors in the Third-World, manager salary and stock-options etc.) www.transnationale.org/anglais/fiches/-1989161467.htm
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