Wal-Mart Faces Accusations of Anti-union Practices in Argentina
Wal-Mart's aggressive efforts to keep labor unions out of stores worldwide have come under fire across the hemisphere. Workers report how the retail chain systematically violates international labor laws protecting workers' rights to free association and union organizing. As the world's largest private employer, Wal-Mart has set a precedent for bad working conditions for employees in the
Due to weak
Human Rights Watch's extensive report "Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association" details how aggressive efforts to keep out labor unions have often violated federal law and infringed on workers' rights. The report found that unions and workers had brought 292 cases against Wal-Mart for violating labor laws in the
The mega-chain's sales have hit record levels since opening stores internationally. Wal-Mart's total revenues of $315.65 billion for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2006 , would rank it as the twenty-first wealthiest country in the world. Wal-Mart operates approximately 2,700 stores internationally in
The Case in
Wal-Mart has drawn the attention of Argentine lawmakers for anti-union practices in the corporation's stores throughout the South American nation. Earlier this year,
Gustavo Cordoba, a labor activist at a Wal-Mart store in
Representatives from President Nestor Kirchner's Victory Front Party have taken issue with Wal-Mart's anti-union aggressive tactics. Appearing before the investigative committee, national congressman Santiago Ferrigno expressed his "concern over the working conditions and persecution of union activists in
At the congressional session in July 2007 Wal-Mart representative Gaston Wainstein reported that the company has allowed employees to join unions while providing customers low prices. "The Wal-Mart stores have affiliated personnel. Secondly, the company currently has 31 active union delegates. Third, far from not having unions, in our company two unions operate: retail and truck drivers." Wal-Mart representatives stressed to the investigative commission that the 15 stores operating provide customers with the "lowest prices" possible.
Wal-Mart currently employs 5,800 workers in
Workers report that Wal-Mart uses humiliating tactics in the stores, in some cases going as far as prohibiting workers from taking bathroom breaks. In a particular case, a 19-year-old cashier was prevented from going to the bathroom after she asked for permission. Although she was menstruating, the supervisor made her wait for 30 minutes. When she had stained her pants, the supervisor accompanied her to the bathroom and brought her new pants and underwear for her to continue working her shift.
In October 2007, workers and human rights activists protested outside a Wal-Mart store to call attention to the retail chain's working conditions in
The retail chain prohibits workers from referring to themselves as employees, and insists on the term "associates." They are forced to sing the Wal-Mart anthem at work, complete with pom-poms.
Dark Pasts in Private Security
In addition to reports of anti-union practices, Wal-Mart has come under public scrutiny for hiring a former military officer connected with the 1976-1983 military dictatorship as head of security. Alfredo Oscar Saint Jean served during the nation's bloody military junta in cities where clandestine detention centers operated. Outside a Wal-Mart store, human rights representatives participated in an escrache or "exposure" protest calling for an end to impunity for military officers who participated in the systematic disappearance of 30,000 people in the so-called Dirty War.
A representative from
However, this adds up to less than one ex-military officer for each of the country's 375 clandestine detention centers that were used to torture and forcefully disappear 30,000 people. Aside from numbers, human rights representatives report that the trials are advancing at a snail's pace, if at all. Saint Jean Jr.'s father served as general and later as dictator for five days in 1982, and is charged with 33 criminal charges for human rights crimes.
Wal-Mart worker Falcón along with human rights organizations have called for the immediate dismissal of
In line with Wal-Mart stores in the
Workers organizing a union at the Wal-Mart Avelleneda store have faced firings and even violent threats. The retailers union that represents Wal-Mart workers and is affiliated with the CGT umbrella union, has been all too compliant with the company's resistance to unionize workers. When Falcón and
One single store in
Worldwide Wal-Mart has been reported for paying employees low salaries and for unfair labor practices. The situation for the retail chain's employees in
Wal-Mart's success has been due to a key motivation: driving out competition. Wal-Mart stores offer incredibly low prices, which some call predatory pricing, until many potential competitors are driven out of business, unable to keep up with the mega-store's buying power. Later, when Wal-Mart is left with little competition, it can manipulate higher prices for customers accustomed to buying everything from groceries, clothes, electric appliances, to gasoline in one convenient location. Globally, workers face a bleak horizon with many retail giants and manufacturers using competition to drive down wages and labor costs.
The retailer has also used this method with the workforce, hiring young people with little organizing experience and poor work histories to comply with high production rates. With an army of young people eager to find work, Wal-Mart has an endless supply of "associates." Like Ford in the 1920s, Wal-Mart has also created a production model.
In Ford's factories, workers had the benefit of stable jobs and livable wages, although workers endured social control and exploitation. Whereas Ford's model was designed so that employees could buy the final product, a Ford vehicle, the situation for Wal-Mart workers is dismal. Many of Wal-Mart's employees can't afford to shop in their employer's stores, and they must endure unstable and precarious work conditions.
According to union activist Falcón, Wal-Mart has a good image in the eyes of shoppers but a bad reputation for its treatment of workers. Wal-Mart may have met its match, with union delegates eager to improve working conditions and unionize more workers in stores. Argentine workers are pushing for independent union representation, and seem to be making strides despite pressures.
Marie Trigona is a journalist based in
For More Information
Human Rights Watch's report "Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association"
Day of Action Against Big Box Retailers (November 17, 2007)
Agora TV Wal-Mart video
Wake Up Wal-Mart