Wal-Mart's Wicked Ways

In June, a group of National Organization for Women (NOW) members gathered in St. Paul, Minn. for the organization's annual meeting. It was as good a time as any to declare Wal-Mart, the discount retailer, a Merchant of Shame. To emphasize the declaration, the members held a protest in front of a St. Paul Wal-Mart store.

Thirty-five NOW chapters did the same in September at Wal-Marts throughout the country.

"We had signs and fliers to hand out," says Dara Bergmann, the chapter's president. "Our goal is to educate people. We hope they'll consider where they're spending their money. I'd like to see Wal-Mart not do as well until they make some changes."

Bergmann was not in St. Paul when the first protest was held, but she has been told that many Wal-Mart customers had their eyes opened. "I heard that some women walked away from the store, saying 'I'm not shopping here,'" Bermann reports. "One person went back into the store and returned the stuff she had just bought after learning about what they're doing."

"What they're doing," according to Olga E. Vives, vice president at NOW's headquarters in Washington D.C., is discriminating against women by not promoting then to management positions as frequently as they should and by not paying women as well as they pay men.

Vives also notes that Wal-Mart does not stock the "morning-after pill," a contraception women can use after intercourse if they fear pregnancy, nor does it provide birth control coverage under its health care plan. A class-action lawsuit asking for reimbursement of contraceptive expenses is pending in Atlanta, says Vives.

There's also a lawsuit in Alabama filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that female employees have been sexually harassed, and a lawsuit in San Francisco filed by current and former employees alleging sex discrimination in pay and promotion.

Wal-Mart has the dubious distinction of being the most sued retailer in America.

The NOW vice president became concerned about the treatment of female workers in foreign countries as well after seeing research conducted by Ellen Rose, a Brandeis University professor and author of "The Women Who Work For Wal-Mart."

Female employees in El Salvador working for Wal-Mart contractors earn 15 cents for a pair of pants that Wal-Mart sells for $16.95 in the United States, says Rosen. These same women are subjected to forced pregnancy tests. Other Central American workers live in shacks without running water or plumbing, and women workers in China sleep in government-sponsored rooms that house up to 11 other people.

While American workers are not treated as badly as contractors in foreign countries, there's not much to celebrate on the homefront either, according to Rosen's research:

Wal-Mart employs approximately 800,00 people, 72 percent of whom NOW says are women. On average, the "sales associates" make $6.57 an hour, or $13,665.60 a year for full-time work. The low wages puts some families, depending on their size, below the poverty level. Half of the female sales associates qualify for food stamps.

Vives says the women employees at the stores convinced her to name Wal-Mart a Merchant of Shame. "We listened to complaints we got," she says, "and we found they checked out."

Bill Wertz, a spokesman at Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., counters Vives' conclusions. He says the female employees he has spoken to are unhappy about NOW's criticisms. "They tell me NOW isn't taking into account the opportunities for women at Wal-Mart."

A request to interview female employees at Norfolk's Military Highway store had not been granted as of press time for this article.

Wertz estimated that 60 percent of Wal-Mart employees are women, a lower figure than NOW's 72 percent. And while NOW says only one-third of the managers are female, Wertz declined to report the number, stating that the issue of female managers was part of the lawsuit pending in San Francisco.

According to Bergmann, the Tidewater NOW president, of the seven managers at the Military Highway Wal-Mart, only one is female. Steven Matthews, a manager at the store who was unaware of NOW's interest in Wal-Mart and the upcoming protest, referred all questions to Wertz.

Wal-Mart is not the first large company to be named a Merchant of Shame, Wertz noted, and the fact that it's the most sued company doesn't mean anything. "We are the largest company in America in terms of how many people we employ," he says. "That we are often served [lawsuits] reflects that. Remember, being sued doesn't necessarily mean you've done anything wrong."

The three lawsuits NOW mentions in its fight against Wal-Mart are pending, Wertz argues. The company has not been found guilty and will continue to actively defend itself.

Wal-Mart's policy of not covering birth control as part of its health insurance coverage is enforced for both men and women, which "is legal," Wertz notes.
"Our plan is designed for catastrophic coverage," he explains. Also, the company is one of only a few that offers coverage to part-time employees.

Wertz would not comment on specific conditions in Central America or China, saying, "The allegations are broad and general and refer to workplace conditions." He did offer: "Wal-Mart does not have factories there."

But what about contractors? "We do monitor conditions ourselves and have others who do," he says. "We ensure standards are met and local laws are followed. There's no forced labor or child labor."

Vives has not spoken with Wertz, or anyone else from Wal-Mart's headquarters. But she has tried. "We sent a letter in February asking to speak with the CEO (H. Lee Scott)," says Vives. "We followed up twice and haven't received a response."

But Vives isn't discouraged. She has found that naming a company a Merchant of Shame is effective. NOW gave the title to Mitsubishi Motors in 1996 because of concerns about sexual harassment. After two years of speaking with NOW, the company "put safeguards in place to lessen the problem," says Vives.

"After September, I'm hoping we'll sit down with Wal-Mart, and see some progress. We know it takes time for them to make change," Vives continues. "After a while, they'll realize that if something is good for workers, it's good for the company. They'll be amazed at the returns."

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