Walmart’s Summer of Discontent: Retail Empire Faces Worker Dissent in US and Bangladesh

Bangladeshi women protest over pay and working conditions outside a garment factory in Dhaka. Photo: AM Ahad
Bangladeshi women protest over pay and working conditions outside a garment factory in Dhaka. Photo: AM Ahad
As Walmart shareholders continue to gorge on the mega-retailer’s stock, up 12 percent from the beginning of this year, the empire is experiencing a summer of discontent as a growing number of low-wage Walmart workers continue to fight a labor war that’s winning small yet significant victories.

Jim C. Walton, the youngest of the Walton heirs, owns roughly 10.5 million Walmart shares, and on the first day of this year the stock was at $68 share, making his trove worth nearly $810 million. Currently the stock is at $77 a share, and in little over six months his 10.5 million shares made him an additional $80 million.

Needless to say he fattened himself off the backs of low-wage associates from America and anxiety-afflicted garment workers from Bangladesh, laborers who happen to be the lowest paid garment workers on the planet; Walmart employs 2.2 million people globally and outsources countless more to manufacture their off-brand products.

But some Walmart workers have had enough of the disparity, such as OUR Walmart, which is the Organization United for Respect, a group of current and former Walmart employees that’s financially-backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

Aaron Reppin of Danville, Kentucky is an overnight stocker for Walmart and also very active in OUR Walmart. Both this summer and the last one he has traveled with other OUR Walmart members to Bentonville, Arkansas during Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting to let the Walton family know OUR Walmart is here to stay. As this workers’ movement grows, Walmart continues its reprisals against members of OUR Walmart.

“We just started a program for this summer called ‘Summer for Respect’ where we are trying to get 100,000 workers signed up nationwide,” says Reppin. “We took caravans from all over the country to Bentonville and picked up each striker along the way. When we got there, we formed a picket line in front of the corporate office and did a five mile march to Jim Walton’s house. We also held an action in front of the corporate headquarters with a Bangladeshi factory worker who said the names of dead factory workers. But we just had 35 strikers retaliated against. Ten were terminated and 25 were disciplined.  I was given a ‘personal discussion’ which is a warning and goes on your record for six months.”

In spite of such pressure from Walmart against its workers, could the summer of 2013 be a turning point against a retailer that’s turned too many consumers into zombies, set the standard for low wages, decimated small businesses and small towns, and treated millions of lower-rung employees across the globe as if they’re second-class nobodies?

Here are some indications that the anti-worker retail empire is faltering:

§  Earlier this July, PGGM, a $183-billion Dutch pension fund for government and education employees, “excluded” Walmart from its investment portfolio, citing Walmart’s US policy of restricting “employees’ opportunities to organize themselves in trade unions”.

§  The Washington D.C. city council on July 10th passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act that would raise the minimum wage of workers for large retail stores from $8.25 to $12.50.  Walmart was in the process of opening six stores in the D.C. area, but after the act was passed, the retail giant decided to pull the plans on three of them.

§  For the sixth year in a row Walmart finished last in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. As reported in Forbes, Walmart has added 455 stores over the past five years but dropped its workforce by 20,000. “The result?” stated Forbes, “Walmart service now pretty much sucks – and customers don’t like it.”

However, in the wake of recent workplace tragedies, Walmart’s biggest trouble this summer is the issue of safety for Bangladeshi garment workers in Greater Dhaka where 1,129 died in the Raza Plaza factory building collapse in April and 112 died in the Tazreen factory fire there last November. Walmart initially denied any of its contractors were making goods at either of these factories but the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity soon found documents showing both factories were part of the mega-retailer’s supply chain during the previous year.

In the wake of these tragedies, a question many international workers’ rights groups have is, does Walmart truly care about reform or will it remain devoted to making more money for their shareholders even if it means hundreds perish in a factory that has no fire escapes?

Two years ago the Washington, DC-based Worker Rights Consortium helped author the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally-binding and enforceable agreement that requires Western-based fashion retailers to pay for renovations and repairs to Bangladesh factories. The accord was made official on May 16th in the wake of the Dhaka factory collapse, as over 80 international brand names such as Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Sean John, signed on by the deadline. But Walmart and the Gap refused to sign the accord saying it opened them up to litigation.

“We have had a number of legal experts review the accord, and the short answer is, there is no legal liability to which companies are subjected to under this accord,” says Worker Rights Consortium director of communication Theresa Haas.

Haas says Walmart’s excuse was not believable, and instead, the company simply refused to financially support needed safety improvements to factories in Bangladesh. She says it was a cold-hearted decision that may have cost the lives of hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers.

“Two years ago Walmart could have adopted this program, but their response was, ‘We are not going to pay to make factories safe,’” Haas said. “If Walmart had done that, if the Gap had done that, we might have not have seen eleven-hundred workers die two months ago.”

She adds that making factories in Bangladesh safe to work in so garment workers don’t fear for their life isn’t rocket science, nor is it as expensive as rocket science.

“We’re not talking about things that are extremely difficult or detailed. You and I can walk into a [factory in Bangladesh] and figure out whether there are proper emergency exits in that building,” says Haas. “We have on many occasions invited Walmart, the Gap, and others to sign the agreement. That is a standing invitation.”

As for cost, Kakpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, raised that issue at the Wal-Mart shareholder’s meeting when she asked to speak to a group of concerned shareholders.

“Wal-Mart executives have stated the repairs needed to make our factories safe are too expensive,” Akter explains. “Yet the costs would be just two tenths of 1 percent of the company’s profit last year, and just 1% of the dividends paid out last year to the Walton family heirs.”

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.