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Big box Walmart faces backlash from workers

Walmart protest blog
Walmart employees and supporters walk a picket line last week in Pico Rivera, Ca. to protest Walmart's retaliation against workers who speak out. Some borded a bus to start a 1,500-mile bus journey titled "Ride for Respect, "' and bound for Walmart headquarters.Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Walmart, the retail giant that ate America – and is licking its chops over Toronto’s Kensington Market district -- has been chewed out by critics for balking at an agreement on fire and building safety in Bangladesh.

That was after the recent factory collapse that cost the lives of more than 1,000 garment workers who supplied goods to Walmart and other international brands.

Walmart did agree to independent inspections of its suppliers’ factories, saying they are more reliable. And it fired its former supplier. But workers’ advocates say that falls short of taking responsibility for improving the wages and conditions of offshore workers.

Now the bad vibes from Bangladesh are bouncing back. Thanks to crowdsourcing, an American lobby group has raised over $9,000 to bring over a Bangladeshi survivor of a fire that predated the building disaster to Walmart headquarters in Arkansas. She'll join a day of protest timed to coincide with the company's annual shareholder meeting on Friday. 

So will 100 striking Walmart workers, who are part of a landmark nationwide action to upgrade its U.S. wages and working conditions and end retaliation against employees who try to organize or speak out.

Hundreds of others in 30 U.S. cities are setting out on civil rights-inspired caravans across the country to educate Walmart workers on the issues they face. 

It’s not how Walmart wanted to wind up a year of celebrations for its gaspingly successful 50th anniversary.

According to Business Insider, its full-time employees alone number 2.1 million, or seven times the population of Iceland. Its revenue in 2011 was $419 billion – larger than the economy of oil-rich Norway. And last year everyone in the world made an average of 1.1 purchases at a Walmart store.

It has also weathered thousands of lawsuits, including a class action suit for gender discrimination launched by some 2,000 women.

But while Walmart is way too big to fail, many of its American workers complain that their wages are too small to survive on without a second job.

For part-time workers who don’t have a chance at a permanent job, says John Logan of San Francisco State University, “constant changes to their schedules make it impossible to take a second job or return to school.

“They frequently are forced to rely on public assistance in the form of food stamps and low-income health care for survival, and when they do, taxpayers pick up the tab.”

Walmart argues that its low-cost goods are a boon to the community and it has tremendous respect for its euphemistically-labelled “associates” who have every chance to rise in the company and prosper.

The term is aimed at raising the spirits but not the pay of those who earn an average of $8.81 an hour according to a Bloomberg study.

“Even at $12.67 per hour,” says Logan, “a Walmart employee would need to work for approximately 786 years to earn (CEO Michael) Duke’s annual salary for 2012.” That would be $20.7 million.

Will the protests spark a boycott of Walmart?

Not likely. As wages deteriorate, the middle class shrinks, the social safety net frays and jobs become more precarious, its captive consumers are too tired, too broke and too harried to seek alternatives.

It’s oversized, overambitious – and over here to stay.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the U.S., South Asia and the Middle East, winning national and international awards.


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