Wal-Mart’s aggressive efforts to keep labor unions out of stores worldwide have come under fire across the hemisphere. Workers report how the retail chain systematically violates international labor laws protecting workers’ rights to free association and union organizing. As the world’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart has set a precedent for bad working conditions for employees in the United States and abroad.
Due to weak U.S. labor laws, Wal-Mart’s most impressive violations of workers’ rights take place in the United States, where Wal-Mart’s founder Sam Walton opened his first store in 1967. The mega chain’s legacy was built over decades based on providing shoppers with low prices, but at the cost of workers, who face aggressive anti-union tactics, low salaries, often no benefits, tight surveillance, and degrading working conditions. In some cases, they are even forced to work without pay and off the clock.
Human Rights Watch’s extensive report “Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of U.S. Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association” details how aggressive efforts to keep out labor unions have often violated federal law and infringed on workers’ rights. The report found that unions and workers had brought 292 cases against Wal-Mart for violating labor laws in the United States.
The mega-chain’s sales have hit record levels since opening stores internationally. Wal-Mart’s total revenues of $315.65 billion for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2006 , would rank it as the twenty-first wealthiest country in the world. Wal-Mart operates approximately 2,700 stores internationally in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, China, Argentina, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Wal-Mart currently employs approximately 1.8 million workers, called “associates,” worldwide, 1.3 million of whom work in the United States. Workers in nations such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have been able to win minimal union representation due to strict labor laws on the books in each country, but not without withstanding intense opposition from Wal-Mart’s local management.
The Case in Argentina
Wal-Mart has drawn the attention of Argentine lawmakers for anti-union practices in the corporation’s stores throughout the South American nation. Earlier this year, Argentina’s national congress led an investigation into Wal-Mart’s labor practices in the corporation’s 15 Argentine retail outlets. Following reports of the firing of union delegates and abusive working conditions, Wal-Mart was called before a congressional investigative committee in July 2007.
Gustavo Cordoba, a labor activist at a Wal-Mart store in Buenos Aires, was fired in May for his union activity. He testified before the investigative committee about the corporation’s anti-union practices. “We appreciate our jobs, but we also want to make it clear that Wal-Mart abuses workers’ rights. We demand that those abuses cease and that firings for union activities stop. Behind closed doors Wal-Mart violated Argentina’s constitution and it employs corporate practices that discriminate against workers.”
Representatives from President Nestor Kirchner’s Victory Front Party have taken issue with Wal-Mart’s anti-union aggressive tactics. Appearing before the investigative committee, national congressman Santiago Ferrigno expressed his “concern over the working conditions and persecution of union activists in Wal-Mart Argentina.” He also noted concerns that Wal-Mart has hired ex-military officers who served during the nation’s bloody 1976-1983 military junta for administrative and security positions within the company.
At the congressional session in July 2007 Wal-Mart representative Gaston Wainstein reported that the company has allowed employees to join unions while providing customers low prices. “The Wal-Mart stores have affiliated personnel. Secondly, the company currently has 31 active union delegates. Third, far from not having unions, in our company two unions operate: retail and truck drivers.” Wal-Mart representatives stressed to the investigative commission that the 15 stores operating provide customers with the “lowest prices” possible.
Wal-Mart currently employs 5,800 workers in Argentina throughout the nation. According to labor laws, the retail chain has less than half the union delegates needed to represent the total amount of employees. Martín Falcón, a union delegate at the store’s Avelleneda location, says that employees’ reports have helped stop unfair firings, but the company continues to discourage union organizing efforts. “After all of our reports of accusations, Wal-Mart in Avelleneda doesn’t want to fire any workers out of fear. But the company continues to hold meetings with workers telling them they are ‘associates,’ telling them that Wal-Mart is the best place to work in the world. Wal-Mart is known for persecuting its workers because Wal-Mart doesn’t want its workers to organize.”
Workers report that Wal-Mart uses humiliating tactics in the stores, in some cases going as far as prohibiting workers from taking bathroom breaks. In a particular case, a 19-year-old cashier was prevented from going to the bathroom after she asked for permission. Although she was menstruating, the supervisor made her wait for 30 minutes. When she had stained her pants, the supervisor accompanied her to the bathroom and brought her new pants and underwear for her to continue working her shift.
In October 2007, workers and human rights activists protested outside a Wal-Mart store to call attention to the retail chain’s working conditions in Argentina. During a theater performance actors mocked the humiliation that Wal-Mart workers must endure. In one particular scene, a performer explained what a “mystery shopper” is-a supervisor disguised as a customer to spy on Wal-Mart employees. The theatre troop also parodied the mega-store’s pin system, a way to award workers for missing bathroom breaks and working overtime without overtime pay.
The retail chain prohibits workers from referring to themselves as employees, and insists on the term “associates.” They are forced to sing the Wal-Mart anthem at work, complete with pom-poms.
Dark Pasts in Private Security
In addition to reports of anti-union practices, Wal-Mart has come under public scrutiny for hiring a former military officer connected with the 1976-1983 military dictatorship as head of security. Alfredo Oscar Saint Jean served during the nation’s bloody military junta in cities where clandestine detention centers operated. Outside a Wal-Mart store, human rights representatives participated in an escrache or “exposure” protest calling for an end to impunity for military officers who participated in the systematic disappearance of 30,000 people in the so-called Dirty War.
A representative from Wal-Mart Argentina defends the corporation’s decision to hire retired military personnel who served during the dictatorship. “We have not had any formal notification from the judicial system that Saint Jean is connected to any crime.” Military officers in Argentina have benefited from long-standing impunity. In total, 256 former military personnel and members of the military government have been accused of human rights crimes and are now awaiting trial.
However, this adds up to less than one ex-military officer for each of the country’s 375 clandestine detention centers that were used to torture and forcefully disappear 30,000 people. Aside from numbers, human rights representatives report that the trials are advancing at a snail’s pace, if at all. Saint Jean Jr.’s father served as general and later as dictator for five days in 1982, and is charged with 33 criminal charges for human rights crimes.
Saint Jean currently heads the retail chain’s security department. Although he hasn’t been charged for human rights violations by a criminal court, he was stationed in Tucumán during the Independence Operative. Beginning in 1974, one year before the coup, right-wing Peronists initiated the Independence Operative to hold military operations in the Northern Tucumán province. This became the first testing ground for torture tactics. The operative supposedly targeted left-wing guerillas operating in Tucumán’s mountainside. However, the military kidnapped and tortured workers from the region’s sugar fields. They terrorized entire villages to make sure that no workers complained of the slave-like working conditions in the sugarcane fields and mills.
Wal-Mart worker Falcón along with human rights organizations have called for the immediate dismissal of Saint Jean. “When I was hired at Wal-Mart they asked me what my mother and father did for a living. They investigated my police record. I don’t understand how this man with a position as important as head of security could be hired at Wal-Mart with his background,” Falcón says.
Later Saint Jean worked in the coastal port town Bahía Blanca in the Buenos Aires province and later in Tandil and Azul where a network of clandestine detention centers operated. Several of Saint Jean’s coworkers at Wal-Mart are ex-members of the military who served during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship including Miguel Cavazza, Alejandro Patzold, Cristian Thomanssen, Roberto Masilo, Patricio O’Brien, Martín Mundo, Juan Muiño, Roberto Salmon, and Raúl Salazar.
In line with Wal-Mart stores in the United States, the retail chain in Argentina has taken measures to ensure limited union organizing. Tactics detailed in Human Rights Watch’s report mirror the working conditions reported by workers in Argentina’s stores, although conditions in Argentina for union organizing are slightly better than for U.S. Wal-Mart associates.
Workers organizing a union at the Wal-Mart Avelleneda store have faced firings and even violent threats. The retailers union that represents Wal-Mart workers and is affiliated with the CGT umbrella union, has been all too compliant with the company’s resistance to unionize workers. When Falcón and Cordoba were elected as union delegates independent from the CGT’s retail union, Wal-Mart fired Cordoba on two occasions. Both delegates have received phone calls from anonymous callers threatening that if they do not stop union organizing activity they will be physically assaulted.
One single store in Buenos Aires reports sales of more than $3.3 million per month, and an employee makes about $300 a month. With rising inflation, Wal-Mart’s salaries fall below poverty levels, where a family needs a minimum of $600 a month to meet basic needs.
Worldwide Wal-Mart has been reported for paying employees low salaries and for unfair labor practices. The situation for the retail chain’s employees in Brazil is similar to workers in Argentina. In Mexico, Wal-Mart has faced allegations of unlawful labor practices. Newsweek magazine, in a 2006 article, reported that Wal-Mart had been using some 19,000 teenagers to work as unpaid baggers at its stores in Mexico. The teens between 14-16 were denied wages and had to rely entirely on customers’ tips as compensation. Wal-Mart officially describes the youths as “volunteers.”
Wal-Mart’s success has been due to a key motivation: driving out competition. Wal-Mart stores offer incredibly low prices, which some call predatory pricing, until many potential competitors are driven out of business, unable to keep up with the mega-store’s buying power. Later, when Wal-Mart is left with little competition, it can manipulate higher prices for customers accustomed to buying everything from groceries, clothes, electric appliances, to gasoline in one convenient location. Globally, workers face a bleak horizon with many retail giants and manufacturers using competition to drive down wages and labor costs.
The retailer has also used this method with the workforce, hiring young people with little organizing experience and poor work histories to comply with high production rates. With an army of young people eager to find work, Wal-Mart has an endless supply of “associates.” Like Ford in the 1920s, Wal-Mart has also created a production model.
In Ford’s factories, workers had the benefit of stable jobs and livable wages, although workers endured social control and exploitation. Whereas Ford’s model was designed so that employees could buy the final product, a Ford vehicle, the situation for Wal-Mart workers is dismal. Many of Wal-Mart’s employees can’t afford to shop in their employer’s stores, and they must endure unstable and precarious work conditions.
According to union activist Falcón, Wal-Mart has a good image in the eyes of shoppers but a bad reputation for its treatment of workers. Wal-Mart may have met its match, with union delegates eager to improve working conditions and unionize more workers in stores. Argentine workers are pushing for independent union representation, and seem to be making strides despite pressures.
MARIE TRIGONA is a journalist based in Argentina and writes regularly for the Americas Policy Program. She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com.