Working for Slave-Mart
Wal-Mart depends on these workers for their low, low prices
Women vs. Wal-Mart
Just in time for holiday shopping, a new book portrays the world's largest retailer as greedy, sanctimonious and grossly unfair to its female employees.
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By Corrie Pikul
Nov. 22, 2004 | In 2000, a 54-year-old Wal-Mart worker named Betty Dukes filed a sex discrimination claim against her employer. Despite six years of hard work and excellent performance reviews, Dukes said, she was denied the training she needed to advance to a higher, salaried position. Dukes was fed up -- and she wasn't the only one. The suit, Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., was eventually expanded to represent 1.6 million women, comprising both current and former employees, making it the largest civil rights class-action suit in history. The suit charged Wal-Mart with discriminating against women in promotions, pay and job assignments, in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which protects workers from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion or national origin). This past June, a California judge ruled in favor of the women. Wal-Mart is appealing the decision.
In her new book, "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart," journalist Liza Featherstone follows the Dukes case from start to finish. Through interviews with lawyers, plaintiffs and witnesses -- and analyses of reports from both sides -- she paints a picture of Wal-Mart as a hypocritical, falsely pious, exceptionally greedy corporation that creates a massive sinkhole for working women. (Wal-Mart officials refused to be interviewed for the book.) Female employees from stores all over the country tell of being repeatedly passed over for promotions, enduring sexist comments from male co-workers, and worst of all, getting paid significantly lower salaries for doing the same amount of work, or sometimes even more.
Featherstone, a contributing editor at the Nation who has written extensively about labor issues, says that she saw the suit as an opportunity to examine the role that Wal-Mart -- which has over 3,500 stores in the United States and employs 1.3 million workers -- plays in our society, and the effects the company has on working conditions everywhere. Featherstone was also curious about the six named plaintiffs, whom she calls "the women who would stand up to the world's most powerful retailer."
Salon spoke to Featherstone about the details of the Dukes case, red-state and blue-state retailers, and Wal-Mart's paradoxical relationship to the Republican Party.
CNBC and "Frontline" both recently aired documentaries about Wal-Mart, and even South Park had an episode about a Wal-Mart store that takes over the town. Communities all over the country are debating the pros and cons of having a Wal-Mart in their area. Now we have your book. Why is the store getting all this attention?
Wal-Mart's business model of offering the lowest price is often at the sacrifice of many principles, including workplace fairness and gender and race equality. We're alighting on a critique of this business model, and Wal-Mart provides a glaring and enormous example.
Tell me about the lead plaintiff for the case, Betty Dukes.
She was actually a little bit prickly at first because she'd had [what she felt was] a very bad experience talking to a writer for Fortune. She had spent a lot of time with that writer, and she didn't end up in the story. That's a common situation in journalism. But Betty really felt hurt by that, and she didn't really want to cooperate with any more journalists. But Betty was also very eloquent and, ultimately, very eager to tell her story. She has a sort of wonderfully commanding manner that comes from being a pastor in her church: She likes giving proclamations, and she does that very well.
Is there something about the Wal-Mart culture that is particularly attractive to female employees?
Wal-Mart promises that even if you don't have a college education, you can advance. For many women with no education and little work experience outside the home, that is very appealing. The Wal-Mart promises are so compelling to people because they map so well onto the promises of American culture. People really want to believe them. Another thing that appeals to these women is that Wal-Mart also sells themselves as a family-oriented company with strong "values" -- which is often understood to mean Christian values.
Yet in the book you cite several discrepancies between the way Wal-Mart talks about family values and the way the company actually serves the families of its employees.
The way that Wal-Mart underpays women and doesn't promote them, despite the fact that so many women who work there are supporting their families, is shockingly hostile. As one of the plaintiffs pointed out, "They don't even pay you enough to pay a babysitter." In their company culture, they've always had the idea that to move into management, people have to be willing to relocate. [Uprooting the family] can be tremendously disruptive to families for either men or women. It's clearly something that can be avoided, especially now that there are so many Wal-Marts everywhere. You hardly need to be sent to another state to work at a different Wal-Mart.
What about those "Christian values"? Do they allow employees time off to practice their religion?
Many employees who wish to practice Christianity have a difficult time getting Sundays off. That is something Betty Dukes brought up. One of Wal-Mart's requirements for moving into management is being available to work at any time. Betty feels that not being available to work on Sundays has hurt her. Other employees have said the same thing. As an employee, you can get the time off usually, but there is a sense that a manager should be free to work anytime they're asked. That's also something that hurts women with children.
Has Wal-Mart ever publicly acknowledged that they discriminated against women?
Not explicitly. In some instances, they've said [in the context of the lawsuit], "We're realizing we have to make some changes. But we can't change what makes Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart!" Wal-Mart is treading a fine line because they want the public to know that they are taking the criticisms seriously and are trying to do something about them, while still fighting [the ruling] in court.
Many of the employees you spoke with expressed a belief in the "glory days" of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and seemed to feel that none of Wal-Mart's current labor problems would be happening if Walton were still alive. Is there any truth to this? Did things go downhill after he died in 1992?
Employees see Sam Walton as an inspiring figure because he built his empire from a five-and-dime store in Arkansas -- he really is an embodiment of the American dream. Many workers that I interviewed talked about how Sam Walton would be turning over in his grave if he could see the company now. The fact is that Sam Walton knew Wal-Wart wasn't treating women well -- he even wrote about it in his biography -- but there is very little evidence that he did anything to change it. He was very opposed to unions and always said unions had no place at Wal-Mart. Sam was also very cheap. He helped build the business model of spending as little as possible, and that included spending as little as possible on labor costs. There is every reason to believe that Wal-Mart is what it is because of the views of Sam Walton, not in spite of them.
But it's not just American women they treat badly.
Scouring the Globe to Give Shoppers an $8.63 Polo Shirt
Wal-Mart, once a believer in buying American, extracts ever lower prices from 10,000 suppliers worldwide. Workers struggle to keep pace.
By Nancy Cleeland, Evelyn Iritani and Tyler Marshall
Times Staff Writers
November 24, 2003
SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS — When Wal-Mart Stores Inc. demands a lower price for the shirts and shorts it sells by the millions, the consequences are felt in a remote Chinese industrial town, at a port in Bangladesh and here in Honduras, under the corrugated metal roof of the Cosmos clothing factory.
Isabel Reyes, who has worked at the plant for 11 years, pushes fabric through her sewing machine 10 hours a day, struggling to meet the latest quota scrawled on a blackboard.
She now sews sleeves onto shirts at the rate of 1,200 garments a day. That's two shirts a minute, one sleeve every 15 seconds.
"There is always an acceleration," said Reyes, 37, who can't lift a cooking pot or hold her infant daughter without the anti-inflammatory pills she gulps down every few hours. "The goals are always increasing, but the pay stays the same."
Reyes, who earns the equivalent of $35 a week, says her bosses blame the long hours and low wages on big U.S. companies and their demands for ever-cheaper merchandise. Wal-Mart, the biggest company of them all, is the Cosmos factory's main customer.
Reyes is skeptical. Why, she asked, would a company in the richest country in the world care about a few pennies on a pair of shorts?
The answer: Wal-Mart built its empire on bargains.
The company's size and obsession with shaving costs have made it a global economic force. Its decisions affect wages, working conditions and manufacturing practices — even the price of a yard of denim — around the world.
From its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., the company has established a network of 10,000 suppliers and constantly pressures them to lower their prices. At the same time, Wal-Mart buyers continually search the globe for still-cheaper sources of supply. The competition pits vendor against vendor, country against country.
"They control so much of retail that they can put someone into business or take someone out of business if they choose to," said Pat Danahy, a former chief executive at Cone Mills Corp. in Greensboro, N.C., one of the few surviving U.S. textile producers.
In Honduras, the pressure keeps factory managers on edge, always looking for ways to cut expenses without running afoul of labor laws or Wal-Mart's own contractor rules, which call for "reasonable employee work hours."
"I think we have reached the limit," said Shin Woo Kang, manager of the enormous Han Soll Textile Ltd. sewing plant on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. The plant employs 1,600 workers, mostly young women. Wal-Mart is its biggest customer.
The brightly lighted factory is filled with humming machines, mounds of clothing parts and fast-moving hands. Down one production line, pieces of navy blue fabric take shape as Bobbie Brooks polo shirts, each bearing a Wal-Mart price tag of $8.63.
Kang said Wal-Mart was paying Han Soll about $3 a shirt — a few cents less than last year.
Asked what he would do if the retailer pressed for an even lower price, Kang grew quiet. "We would have to find something," he said finally. "Honestly speaking, I don't know what it is."
The problem is that this also leads to shitty goods. Wal-Mart sells price, not quality. The cheaper they go, the more crap they tolerate.
posted by Steve @ 1:27:00 AM