Friday, July 12, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #116 - Part 3

Good news 3: Walmart feels the heat

One final bit of good news-bad news.

Walmart, as I’ve discussed here before, continues to face a mounting labor movement as exploited workers come to feel they have nothing to lose by standing up for themselves.

A union-backed group called OUR Walmart has been conducting a campaign called  Making Change at Walmart to push for improved hours, pay, and benefits for its workers. Many of Walmart's 1.5 million employees earn just above the minimum wage, and rely on food stamps and other government aid to get by.

The corporation is notoriously anti-union, even flying in teams of union-busters to stores at the first hint of union activity. This May, Walmart posted a job listing for a director of Labor Relations, whose job was described as maintaining a “continued union-free workplace.” Those who do try to organize face retaliation: According to OUR Walmart, 11 workers involved in the movement were fired last month alone.

Walmart insists the labor activism is trivial and baseless, that, in the words of corporate flunky Randy Hargrove, "our associates have chosen to remain union-free." But the good news is that it turns out that some of the company’s large investors just aren’t buying it any more.

Two large European pension funds have announced that they would no longer invest in Walmart, charging that the company does not treat its employees in accordance with international standards of freedom of association, and has failed to respond to their concerns.

This comes after five years of efforts to get Walmart to adopt the standards of the International Labour Organization. In a media release Monday, one of the pension funds called Walmart's efforts to block workers from unionizing as "contrary to fundamental principles and rights at work." When a final request for the company to acceptinternational standards was met with a response that it just wasn’t even going to be considered, it was, in the words of an executive of one of the funds, "the final straw that broke the camel's back."

This is not the first such case: Last year, the Netherlands' largest pension fund divested from Walmart for failing to comply with the United Nations' Global Compact, which outlines values related to labor, human rights, corruption, and the environment.

Again, the good news is that this is happening; the bad news is that it’s necessary.

As a footnote to this, even as pressure slowly builds on Walmart from one direction, the corporation is looking to another, apparently reluctantly realizing that it’s image could, well, use some polishing.

Nearly 20 North American retailers - including Walmart - have agreed to a 5-year safety plan for Bangladesh garment factories that would include inspecting every factory within a year. This comes in the wake of the fire in November that killed 112 people in one Bangladesh garment factory and the over 1100 who were crushed in the collapse of another in April.

Unfortunately, this won’t actually do much, as the companies declined to join an agreement worked out in May among mostly European firms that is a)binding and b)includes requirements for independent inspections and for the signatories to stop doing business with any firm that fails to meet the standards, none of which is true of the one just announced. It is, that is, little more than apple-polishing. But still, it does mean that Walmart, which initially denied it had anything to do with or any responsibility for, the dangerous conditions under which the workers of Bangladesh must labor so we can save a couple of bucks on socks, Walmart is feeling the pressure. And that’s a good thing.


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