January 26, 2005

"Public Eye Award" Given to Wal-Mart

Now this is an award not to be proud of:

Critics of globalisation on Wednesday rounded on the "irresponsible" conduct of four top companies including the oil giant Shell and Dow Chemicals on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

As the meeting of global political and economic leaders got underway at the Alpine Resort of Davos, pressure groups meeting nearby gave their "Public Eye Awards" to the two multinationals, as well as to the US retail chain Wal-Mart and audit firm KPMG International.

But wait, what is the standard of proof needed to win such an award? Apparently, none.

The full nomination can be found here. However, none of the supporting material has anything to do with the alleged abuses detailed here. All the supporting documents discuss WM's activities in the US, while the nomination is made for international sweatshops abuses. News stories of one have absolutely nothing to do with the other. Also, all the accusations are from activities that occurred in 2003 or before, so WM, like Dow Chemical, is actually nominated for refusing to admit guilt for past activities, not new ones.

Of course, WM ,along with 19 others, had no chance to defend their records. WM was nominated by the Clean Clothes Campaign in the Labor Rights category, because of alleged (a word NEVER used by the nominee) abuse in South Africa, Kenya, and Thailand. We already know that WM is evil because it fights the U.S. unions that despise it, but now it's evil because it fights foreign unions.

Still, just what did Wal-Mart do to deserve such accolades? Some pretty nasty stuff:

First of all, there is the case of the 21 Wal-Mart clothes supply factories in Lesotho (South Africa). A normal working day in Lesotho lasts 10 hours. Added to that is compulsory overtime of up to 4 hours daily, which amounts to 14 hours daily. In some factories, the workers are forced to do
double shifts. Most of the workers get a meagre monthly wage of US$54. Moreover, the workers expressed complaints that the factories are chillingly cold in winter and stiflingly hot in summer, since there is no sufficient insulation, heating or air conditioning. In one factory, there are no more than 3 bathrooms for 900 workers. Repeatedly, there have been verbal, physical and sexual harassments. The managers of the factories refuse to enter into negotiations with the trade unions.

Second, there is another case of clothes supply factories in Kenya. Three of them - Kentex, Baraka und JAR - produce for Wal-Mart too. In January 2003, workers expressed complaints towards the authorities on the deplorable working conditions (wages below the subsistence level, pressure on the trade unions, long working hours etc.) and they went on strike for one day. Afterwards, they negotiated with the employers. In a press release, the employers granted the trade unions access to their factories so that they could recruit workers. In addition, they agreed to enter into furthe negotiations on better working conditions. All of a sudden five factories, amongst them Kentex,
Baraka and later JAR, were closed down and the workers were dismissed. The factory managers later employed other workers. They made it crystal clear to them that they would not accept any individual complaints and no trade unions.

Another case concerns the clothes manufacture Par Garment situated near Bangkok. It used to produce for Wal-Mart. The factory was closed down because the owner was in arrears with his credit repayments. He now produces in other factories, far away from Bangkok. He left his former employees jobless and without any compensation.

How much of this is real, and how much is hysteria? I don't know.

But the nomination documents present no evidence whether or not individual cases of harrasment in WM factories were actually addressed. No evidence is offered that Wal-Mart's wages are not competitive for the region; they may very well be insufficient to support a family of four, but workers found them competitive enough to take in the first place. That the working day in Lesotho is 10 hours long is regrettable to some, but probably not all workers; but no proof is offered to back up claims of routing forced four-hour extensions. That Wal-Mart will not deal with local unions even though it is required by law should tell you something about the government of Lesotho; it is that government, not the company that should be in the hot seat.

But note that all the accusations of union avoidance were made by the Lesotho Clothing Union over two years ago, not a nonpartisan observer.

Also, Wal-Mart does close factories in which the unions strike and demand collective bargaining... to insist that Wal-Mart not close down such factories is childish.

Posted by Kevin on January, 26 2005 at 11:10 AM