Nearly everyday, commercials air on TV and radio touting the great low prices available to consumers shopping at Walmart. Other ads discuss how the company prides itself on the upward mobility of its employees within the corporate structure from hourly associates up through the ranks to store management positions. Deeper analysis of Walmart’s policies and practices with regard to its employees show it to be far from the paragon of employer virtue that the advertisements would leave one to believe.
Walmart provides many of its store employees with a compensation package that leaves many of them dependent upon government assistance to feed, house and provide medical care for themselves and their families. In a very real sense, American taxpayers,through such programs as Food Stamps, Medicaid, school lunch programs, federal housing assistance and other programs are subsidizing Walmart. Taxpayer money enables them to maintain their low prices while keeping their labor costs lower than they need to be in order for all their workers to earn a living wage. Below are links to articles citing studies reflecting the extent to which Walmart, the largest private-sector employer in the nation, takes advantage of our social safety net and low minimum wage to keep its profits high.
Another way in which Walmart exploits workers is the way by which it obtains many of the low-priced items it sells to U.S. consumers. By contracting out production of items such as clothing to manufacturers located in countries where wages and working conditions exist that would be illegal in this country, the company is able to obtain quality clothing and other goods while seemingly divorcing itself from the conditions under which they are made. Poorly informed consumers have no idea of the way the people who make the clothes they buy from China, or some other low-wage country are treated by their employers, or the dangerous working conditions they must endure to make their living. I’m sure many would find the price of such goods to be too high if it included the value of the lives lost in their production.
Walmart does not directly employ these workers in foreign factories. Earlier this year, the plight of some of them became highly publicized due to the occurrence of a number of factory disasters in Bangladesh resulting in the deaths of hundreds of sweatshop workers in factories which contract out to Walmart and other major Western retailers. While Walmart and other retailers dependent upon such labor are not currently held legally liable for such deaths, it is morally reprehensible for them to rely so heavily on inhumane treatment of workers by contractors to profit so highly from uninformed consumers here. We must not allow them to escape responsibility for the conditions under which their goods are produced or the treatment of the workers who make them. Most retailers recently agreed to increased oversight to mitigate such occurrences in the future, but Walmart and the Gap were conspicuous in their refusal to join in this joint effort.
Our government has a role to play in all of this. While the sequester and budget cuts designed to reduce the debt and deficit have often attempted to cut social safety net programs helping out workers like those cited above at Walmart, Congress refuses to do anything to alleviate the problem of low wages. The President, back in February, asked for an admittedly inadequate raise in the minimum wage to $9 per hour. Instead, the House of Representatives last week narrowly defeated a proposed farm bill that would have cut the food stamp program by $20 billion over 10 years. Many in Congress still seek to further cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations while lowering the deficit by cutting the programs that really help the people who desperately need them.
While the world needs more protections for workers, particularly those in low-wage countries that are currently facing the harshest working conditions, governments are working in relative secrecy to lessen restrictions on multinational corporations in their conduct of business on an international level. These “free trade” pacts do little to help out workers in any of the countries involved, while reducing greatly the ability of national and local governments to regulate the large companies as they conduct themselves within their borders. In essence, the governments come to exist more as protectors of the corporations than of their own citizens and taxpayers.
Walmart, Apple and other corporate giants are not alone in their blatant disregard for the welfare of their employees and those who actually manufacture the goods and services that they sell. They are merely some of the most egregious violators of decent moral standards of conduct with regard to how they treat their workers. Sky-high profits accentuate this fact. Those profits have not resulted in better wages and working conditions for the average worker in decades. Some companies do a far better better job of compensating their employees and still maintain a profit. One that comes to mind is Costco. Information about unfair and inhumane working conditions and how we taxpayers and our government subsidize them needs to be made more public so that consumers can make educated decisions about where to shop and what to buy based on corporate responsibility and conduct. Consumer boycotts can do wonders in changing corporate behavior for the better.
Putting pressure on our elected officials do do something to rectify the insanity of the policies our government has put in place to not only allow but encourage such abuse of employees by employers is also needed. Our displeasure at the situation needs to be heard loud and clear, both inside and outside of the voting booth. Luckily, for now, the farm bill went down to defeat. But so did a bill to raise the minimum wage so that it would more nearly approximate becoming a livable one. For the time being, many Walmart workers will still be able to use government assistance to buy the food they sell in store which employs them. This needs to remain true as long as our government insists on letting employers underpay their workers. Walmart and most others obviously will continue to do so until forced to do otherwise. People before profit should be the goal, but it is one our society falls far short of at this time.
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