Wal-Mart and Target Spy on Their Employees

It reads like a cold war thriller: The spy follows the suspects through several countries, ending up in Guatemala City, where he takes a room across the hall from his quarry. Finally, after four days of surveillance, including some patient ear-to-the-keyhole work, he is able to report back to headquarters that he has the goods on them. They're guilty!

But this isn't a John Le Carré novel, and the powerful institution pulling the strings wasn't the USSR or the CIA. It was Wal-Mart, and the two suspects weren't carrying plans for a shoulder-launched H-bomb. Their crime was "fraternization." One of them, James W. Lynn, a Wal-Mart factory inspection manager, was traveling with a female subordinate, with whom he allegedly enjoyed some intimate moments behind closed doors. At least the company spy reported hearing "moans and sighs" within the woman's room.

Now you may wonder why a company so famously cheap that it requires its same-sex teams to share hotel rooms while on the road would invest in international espionage to ferret out mixed-sex fraternizers. Unless, as Lynn argues, they were really after him for what is a far worse crime in Wal-Mart's books: Openly criticizing the conditions he found in Central American factories supplying Wal-Mart stores.

In fact, the cold war thriller analogy is not entirely fanciful. New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro, who related the story of Wal-Mart's stalking of Lynn and his colleague, also reports that the company's security department is staffed by former top officials of the CIA and the FBI. Along the same lines, Jeffrey Goldberg provides a chilling account of his visit to Wal-Mart's Bentonville "war room" in the April 2nd New Yorker. Although instructed not to write down anything he saw, he found a "dark, threadbare room... its walls painted battleship gray," where only two out of five of the occupants will even meet his eyes. In general, he found the Bentonville fortress "not unlike the headquarters of the National Security Agency."

We've always known that Wal-Mart is as big, in financial terms, as many sizable nations. It may even have begun to believe that is one, complete with its own laws, security agency, and espionage system. But the illusion of state power is not confined to Wal-Mart. Justin Kenward, who worked at a Target store in Chino CA for three years, wrote to tell me about his six hour interrogation, in 2003, by the store's "Asset Protection" agents, who accused him of wrongly giving a fellow employee a discount on a video game a year earlier:

After about an hour of trying to tell them that I don't remember any thing about that day let alone that transaction, I had to use the restroom. I asked if I could and was denied. This goes on for about another hour when I say "Look I have to pee, bad, can I go to the restroom?" Once more I was told no. So I stand up and start walking out the door, and was stopped. At this point I thought to my self "They're looking to fire me!" So I start to think of ways that transaction might have came to be. I say something like "I would never give a discount unless an L.O.D. (Leader On Duty aka: a manager) or a Team Lead (aka: supervisor) told me to ......" I was interrupted and told that it sounds like I was trying to place my mistake on other people. 3 hours in to this and still needing to pee I was told that I need to write an apologetic letter to the company with the details, every detail, that we just went over and then I could use the rest room...
Kenward not only lost his job, but faced charges of theft.

My efforts to get a comment from Target were unavailing, but I did manage to track down a person who worked in security for the Chino store at the time of Kenward's detention. Because she still depends on Target for her health insurance, she asked not to be named, but she writes that Kenward's experience was not unusual:
What I know for a fact is that they took each of the twelve youngsters [Target employees] to their office separately. They locked them in an office without a telephone, would not let them phone their parents or anyone, and kept them there browbeating them for six to ten hours. They never told them they were being arrested...only that Target was disappointed in them and if they would write a letter of apology that they'd dictate they could go and all would be forgotten. None of these children knew their rights...all of them ended up writing the stupid letter. Of course this too was a lie...as soon as they had the letter in end the police were called and that person was hauled off in handcuffs and arrested.
This is the workplace dictatorship at its brass-knuckled best. When companies start imagining that they are nation-states, entitled to spy on, stalk, and imprison their own employees, then we are well down the road to an actual, full-scale dictatorship.

As for those "moans and sighs" that issued from the hotel room in Guatemala City: Maybe Lynn and his companion were reflecting on the sweatshop conditions they encountered in a Wal-Mart subcontractor's factory. Or maybe they were aware of the man spying on them, and were mourning the decline of democracy.

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