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Always Low Prices, Rarely Human Rights: Wal-Mart and Child Slave Labor

by Monica Bauer
November 2005

It seems as though wherever one goes in the United States, a Wal-Mart is almost always nearby. Whether a person is vacationing in the Appalachian mountains, where corporations rarely exist, or going for a drive through the state of Alaska, it's a well known fact that they're bound to pass a Wal-Mart, maybe even several, along the way. It's no wonder than that Wal-Mart is this nations largest retailer, and the world's biggest corporation. This "super" store raked in over 250 billion dollars last year alone, which accounted for two percent of the United States annual GDP. How is this one store so successful? Any Wal-Mart customer can tell you the obvious answer; their "always low prices." Yet how is Wal-Mart able to sell their merchandise so inexpensively and beat out virtually any retail competitor it comes across? The answer to this question is much more shocking; Wal-Mart buys most of their products from overseas sweatshops.

The word sweatshop is defined as "A shop or factory in which employees work long hours at low wages under poor conditions". These types of factories where workers rights are completely disregarded are the types of factories that Wal-Mart generally does business with. The store's main goal is to keep prices low to keep the consumer happy. However, Wal-Mart treats their employees much differently from their customers. The giant corporation rarely takes into concern the happiness of its millions of foreign workers in 48 different countries. Unfortunately, these factory workers are the ones that have to pay for Wal-Mart's "low-prices" in the end. Their abused and over-worked for a salary that usually isn't even enough to support their family on. When ridiculous price and time requirements are imposed on factories, the result is sweatshops.

In September of 2005, 15 workers from six different countries, United States, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Swaziland, filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart, claiming that the company isn't doing anything to correct the sweatshop like conditions most of its factories are being run under. The lawsuit states, "Based on its vast economic power, Wal-Mart, based on its code of conduct, can and does control the working conditions of its supplier factories. It could use its power and position to prevent its producers from profiting from the inhumane treatment of [workers]". The complaint focuses on the terrible stories of 16 different factory workers. One talks about how she was locked in the factory and forced to work every single day for six months. Another speaks of how she was brutally beaten because she didn't meet her outrageously high quota. One plaintiff, from Swaziland, claims that he had to labor for 16 hours straight in a factory where they locked the doors to ensure that no one left. In response to this lawsuit, Wal-Mart declared that they are doing everything they can "to verify that factories are in compliance with labor laws," but realistically violations are going to occur.

Even more disturbing than the human rights violations adults have been subject to, is the sickening way children have been treated in Wal-Mart factories for years. In Bangladesh, children between the ages of nine and twelve are paid five cents an hour and forced to work past midnight making Wal-Mart clothes. In Honduras, it was discovered that children ages thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen were working for thirteen hours a day, twenty-five cents an hour, sewing twenty-dollar jeans. These children had restricted bathroom breaks and were beaten for their mistakes. So why aren't these types of facilities being immediately shut down? Because no one knows where these factories are located. Wal-Mart feels that the locations of its factories are at their disclosure. And so, behind barbed wire and metal gates, these children slave away. In Wal-Mart's official statement concerning sweatshops, the company said, "Wal-Mart strives to do business only with factories run legally and ethically". Certainly, the way these children are being used as slaves cannot be called by any means "ethical."

Out of the six thousand factories Wal-Mart has all over the world, eighty-percent are located in China alone. In fact, China sells so many products to Wal-Mart, that if the company were a country, it would be China's fifth-largest export market. Here Chinese workers make about a hundred twenty dollars a month, and need this job to feed their families. These poor people are very expendable, and they have neither rights nor very many options. And so they work grueling hours to satisfy Wal-Mart's demands. One Chinese labor official was quoted to have said, "Wal-Mart pressures the factory to cut its price, and the factory responds with longer hours or lower pay." Most of these factories violate Chinese labor laws, and Wal-Mart's supposed standards, in one way or another. Some suppliers have children under the age of sixteen, China's legal working age, employed inside their factories. Others force their employees to work as much as 130 hours per week and will cut their pay significantly, below China's minimum wage, without any notice or reason for doing so. Wal-Mart's global empire was undoubtedly built on the backs of these poor men and woman just trying to earn enough money to eat.

According to Business Week, H. Lee Scott Jr., the CEO of Wal-Mart, made over seventeen million dollars in 2004. This comes out to over eight thousand dollars an hour if Mr. Scott is working for forty hours a week. Yet, the overseas factory workers in China and Bangladesh, who are responsible for Wal-Mart's "everyday low prices" and basically the store's success, only receive seventeen cents an hour. So, Mr. Scott makes about fifty thousand times what one of these employees make. This kind of difference is truly remarkable.

On October 20 of this year, Wal-Mart announced that they were going to enforce stricter standards on overseas suppliers. However, Mr. Lee Scott has yet to confirm any definite plans on how the company is going to go about doing this task. With any hope, this is a step in the right direction. Wal-Mart has such global economic power that if they put an end to their sweatshop factories and child slave labor, perhaps other corporations will do the same. Maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of this dark tunnel.

Sources Used:

http://www.pbs.org/itvs/storewars/stores3.html
http://www.nytimes.com
http://www.laborrights.org/press/Wal-Mart/walmart_020804.htm
http://www.ips-dc.org
http://www.laborrights.org/projects/corporate/walmart/usasstatement102105.htm
http://ksworkbeat.org/Issues/Walmart_s_Opinion_of_Union_Memb/What_Is_Walmart_Trying_To_Hide.htm
http://laborrights.org/press/Wal-Mart/wmlawsuit_reuters_091305.htm
http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?list=type&type=108
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050704/featherstone

Available online at http://ihscslnews.org/

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