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Rose Aguilar
Rose Aguilar
Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.

Walmart's horrific treatment of workers is too big to ignore

It's time to put pressure on politicians to make a statement about the "ongoing exploitation of workers by Walmart".
Last Modified: 14 Dec 2012 09:24
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 [AFP]

Former President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, meet 55-year-old Martha Sellers. For the past nine years, Sellers has worked as a Walmart cashier in Paramount, California.

On November 23, the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States, while most television hosts were asking so-called "shopping experts" how to beat the crowds to get the best deals, Sellers and eight others were being arrested outside of the Paramount store for sitting in the middle of the street and refusing to move. More than 10,000 community members joined more than 30 striking employees who walked off the job to demand better working conditions. 

"It was wonderful. Exciting and scary at the same time," says Sellers. "I'm fighting for every working person in this country. I'm fighting for my grandchildren and your grandchildren who might have to work here one day. How bad is it going to get? It's all about money." 

When Sellers started at Walmart, she made $7.56 an hour; today, she makes $13 an hour. Like so many Walmart workers across the country, Sellers wants the option to work full-time, an end to retaliation for speaking out, and basic respect. 

"How about a thanks once in a while? Very few managers say, 'Thanks, you did a great job'," she says. "It seems petty, but everybody needs an attaboy once in a while." 

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

Ongoing exploitation 

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.

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @roseaguilar

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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