Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wal-Mart’s Strategy of Deniability of Responsibility

I noted recently the horrific fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh that claimed well over 100 lives - likely mostly women and children.  One of the principal clients of the sweat shop fire trap is Wal-Mart, a company that has long cut corners on adequate pay for its workers, shifted purchasing from American factories to China and third world nations, and which I am sure applauds the Republican Party quest to gut meaningful regulations on business and block unionization by employees.  In short, Wal-Mart symbolizes the GOP quest to return America to the state that employees faced during the Gilded Age, the excesses of which gave rise to the progressive movement in America.  A column in the Washington Post looks at Wal-Mart's efforts to shift blame and deny responsibility for the horror that happened in Bangladesh.  Here are excerpts:
Bangladesh is half a world away from Bentonville, the Arkansas city where Wal-Mart is headquartered. This week, Wal-Mart surely wishes it were farther away than that.

Over the weekend, a horrific fire swept through a Bangladesh clothing factory, killing more than 100 workers, many of whose bodies were burnt so badly that they could not be identified. In its gruesome particulars — locked doors, no emergency exits, workers leaping to their deaths — the blaze seems a ghastly centennial reenactment of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, when 146 workers similarly jumped to their deaths or were incinerated after they found the exit doors were locked.

The signal difference between the two fires is location. The Triangle building was located directly off New York’s Washington Square. Thousands watched the appalling spectacle of young workers leaping to the sidewalks 10 stories down; reporters and photographers were quickly on the scene. It’s not likely, however, that the Bangladesh disaster was witnessed by anyone from either the United States or Europe — the two markets for which the clothes made inside that factory were destined. For that, at least, Wal-Mart should consider itself fortunate.

If this were an isolated incident of Wal-Mart denying responsibility for the conditions under which the people who make and move its products labor, then the Bangladeshi disaster wouldn’t reflect quite so badly on the company. But the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work.

This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements. Many are employed at little more than the minimum wage in the massive warehouses in the inland exurbs of Los Angeles, where Wal-Mart’s imports from Asia are trucked from the city’s harbor to be sorted and packaged and put on the trucks and trains that take them to Wal-Mart stores for a thousand miles around.

The warehouses are run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart contracts, and most of the workers are employed by some of the 200-plus temporary employment companies that have sprung up in the area .  .  .  . Wal-Mart itself was not cited. That’s the beauty of its chain of deniability.

A small band of these warehouse workers has been demonstrating for the past couple of months to bring attention to the bizarrely contingent nature of their employment and the abuses that flow from it. Their numbers were augmented Friday by actual Wal-Mart employees in stores around the nation, calling attention to the everyday low wages and absence of benefits that the vast majority of the company’s 1.4 million U.S. employees receive.

Other discount retailers — notably Costco and Trader Joe’s — pay their workers far more, train them more extensively, have much lower rates of turnover and much higher rates of sales per employee, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Zeynep Ton of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Costco is a very profitable business, but Wal-Mart maintains an even higher profit margin, which it achieves by underpaying its employees.
But Wal-Mart neither pays its own nor takes responsibility for those who make and move its wares. For America’s largest private-sector employer, the emergency exits are always open.

Meanwhile, the Walton family members wallow in billions of dollars of wealth.  They obviously view their employees and those who indirectly work for their company as little better than serfs.

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