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Wal-Mart's Shocking Impact on the Lives of Hundreds of Millions of People

Wal-Mart's actions shape our landscape, work, income distribution, consumption patterns, politics and culture, and the organization of industries, from California to China.
 
 
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Wal-Mart casts a global shadow across the lives of hundreds of millions of people, whether or not they ever enter a Supercenter. With $405 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, Wal-Mart is so big, and so obsessively focused on cost-cutting, that its actions shape our landscape, work, income distribution, consumption patterns, transport and communication, politics and culture, and the organization of industries from retail to manufacturing, from California to China.

Yet other paths are possible, and the company would not be so influential had the world not changed to enable its metastasized growth. Had unions been stronger, especially in the South, and more devoted to organizing the growing service sector, Wal-Mart might not have become such an obstacle to labor renewal. If antitrust enforcement had not been narrowed, Wal-Mart could never have grown as big as it did. There would be no such mega-stores if state governments had not repealed Depression-era fair-trade laws. And Wal-Mart’s push of American consumer -- product manufacturing to China depended on a previously established political and technological foundation of pro-corporate globalization.

But it would be a mistake to say that Wal-Mart is merely following the new logic of retail competition, for Wal-Mart reinforces all dimensions of this emerging business climate. As Jennifer Stapleton, assistant director of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ project Making Change at Walmart, puts it, “They set the rules.”

 

Consider Ana Sanchez, a 45-year-old immigrant to Southern California from Mexico. Wal-Mart does not employ her but is in some sense her boss. Sanchez worked two years at a temp agency that staffed a large California warehouse. She was trying to put her three children through college in Oaxaca, Mexico, on pay that started at $6.75 an hour, then rose to $8, with no benefits. She retrieved cartons, put labels on products, then shrink-wrapped plastic around pallets to ship. Mainly, she shipped children’s clothing made in China to Wal-Mart.

The work was hard, fast, and stressful, with “constant pressure,” she says. “If I killed myself to make 2,000 labels one day, the next day, they’d give me 200 more. They kept raising the quota. It was very dangerous. And with every order from Wal-Mart, the supervisors would say there’s an urgency for us to do it. Managers would complain that the company was putting a lot of pressure on them.”

Rushing to wrap a pallet in April 2009, Sanchez fell and injured herself. Despite an unblemished work record, the agency fired her, supposedly for a paperwork error, but more likely -- she believes -- because she was hurt. Unable to find another job, she lives in a tiny room in a cousin’s house, making tamales to sell and looking for work. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico destroyed and a failure,” she says.

 

Zahir Chowdury (he asked not to use his real name) manages factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for an Asian multinational apparel manufacturer whose clients prominently include Wal-Mart. He admires Wal-Mart for setting “very structured, systematic” guidelines for everything from energy efficiency to treatment of workers. But now he worries that his prices are rising for inputs, such as cotton. His selling price has changed little over five years, but he hopes Wal-Mart will agree to pay more for finished garments, which is usually about 5 percent less than anyone else pays but for longer production runs.

It’s hard, however, to meet Wal-Mart’s standards at Wal-Mart’s price. That’s why the U.S.–based Worker Rights Consortium frequently uncovers major workers’ rights violations in the Bangladeshi (or Indian or Cambodian) factories of suppliers to Wal-Mart and other big retailers, despite their codes of conduct and monitors, says WRC Executive Director Scott Nova.

 
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