Betraying Public Trust For A Few Dollars More: Walmart

When the smoke cleared in Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 24, 2012, the world got it’s first glimpse for themselves of the poor working conditions the 117 workers who perished in the fire had to endure so that Walmart and a few other retailers could sell the American public cheaply priced garments.  The appropriate outrage was heard and the usual promises followed of changes and new practices to be implemented while others sent in teams of inspectors to check it all and stop at nothing to fix it.  The outrage lasted for a little while, soon faded and when the cameras disappeared the heads turned away and blind eyes returned.  The only real thing to continue burning out of this tragedy was reigniting the “made in america” movement which is put forth as one of many answers to avoid taking advantage of third world people.  Walmart still has refused to sign any agreement on improved working conditions overseas and skipped all scheduled meetings on the issue.  I guess their thinking is if you ignore it, it’ll go away which as you will see later in the article is their company standard.  Walmart did do the honorable thing and blamed the contractor, shook their heads, tisk, tisk, took no responsibility and moved on. 

Walmart constantly reminds us how honorable a company they are in their television commercials and printed ads, how they help the community and how important it is to offer working families low prices and quality products to stretch their hard earned dollar.  However, Walmart is also a creature of habit and just as they had turned a blind eye to what was going on in Bangladesh, Walmart has done the same thing right here in the United States of America.  That’s right folks, would it surprise you to know the company with all those deals to entice your impulse buying was repeating history with it’s dirty little dark secret in southern California?

Warehouses subcontracted by Walmart are spread out around the Los Angeles area, just like the subcontracted manufacturers in Bangladesh.  Employing people at sub wages under harsh  working conditions for moving product to their stores, labor laws be damned!  These warehouse owners sign contracts with Walmart for a set fee that is ridiculously low to help Walmart’s bottom line and then in turn the warehouses hire people who are desperate for work looking to feed their families for ridiculously low wages and forced to work under hazardous conditions.  Like in Bangladesh, the warehouses here are located around economically depressed areas and they take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of workers. They are hired through temp agencies like NFI and Warestaff, that the warehouse groups have created together so they can control the labor force and hourly wages.  The new hires are placed in warehouses where they receive little if any training and are denied breaks, basic protective gear and water as well as working with blocked emergency exits, over crowded aisles and poor lighting.  It also soon turned out that similar conditions were found in Walmart contract warehouses in the state of Illinois and brought people to the brink of striking to show the world what was going on in Walmart’s supply chain even though their jobs were in jeopardy as retaliation for their actions.

Soon after the warehouse issues in California and Illinois, Walmart demonstrated even further how honorable a company they are by pleading guilty to criminal charges of mishandling hazardous waste and pesticides in it’s retail stores across the country. Rather then pay someone to properly dispose of hazardous chemicals they dumped them into city trash bins and down city sewer systems in order to cut corners and save money.  To out do them selves even more, Walmart also mishandled pesticides it sent as damaged products to a Missouri recycling center that resulted in them being mixed together and put on sale again in a process that violated federal laws regulating pesticide processing.    Walmart also was guilty of not bothering to do any training of their staff in hazardous material handling while they were busy dumping tons of material without regard to public health as well as the effects of contamination to their employees that may not show up until years from now.  For this they paid a fine of  110 million dollars and Walmart just keep on paying as they go, probably cutting more corners to make up the difference.

Another incident that speaks volumes to the conversation on Walmart’s pattern of ethical behavior happened well before the Dhaka fire. The always honorable company was trying it’s hand at spreading their business modules and morals throughout Mexico when sometime in 2005 they came across the idea of bribing Mexican bureaucrats to get preferential treatment for building their new stores.  When upon upper management learned of this transgression they did the honorable thing and totally denied it happened going so far as to destroying any evidence and with NO discipline or counseling for those who plotted and carried it out.  When the standards for decency are set so low at the top you have to wonder how low they can get when they trickle to the bottom.

I’ve been taught you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat others who can do them absolutely no good.  Walmart’s actions or non-actions has consistently demonstrated their feelings about how they believe you should treat human beings.  The company mission and mantra is profits! Profits over morals and profits over human life.  The attitude of benign neglect and looking the other way while putting on a happy face makes me think of that scene in the Wizard of Oz, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and that’s what Walmart hopes their millions of dollars in advertising will get you to do. Forget and buy.

We can be such a compassionate race.  When dolphins were being killed by the millions to fill our need for tuna fish sandwiches public sentiment and outrage plus buying habits altered the way the tuna industry fishes.  When the recent movement of farm to table and a transparent food supply chain came about, it wan’t just to see how our food is grown, what’s used to grow it and how can we get it to the people without the middleman but also how the animals are treated, fed and put down.  Again, it has changed the over all treatment of livestock.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same thing with how large chain stores and manufacturers maintain those cheap prices by creating a transparent supply chain?  It shouldn’t be enough just to say, “made in America” but how is it made, how are they treated and what are their working conditions.  Maybe it’s time to change our buying habits and change the market by spending your dollars at a small local business.  You may spend a little more but you know their ethics are better and in a lot of cases, products can be found that are made by other locals and I’d rather help them and bring money into my community than help some nameless CEO get to his bonus on the misery of others.  The reality is, so you can shop at those rock bottom prices, people suffer even in America.

As a leader, there may be times you have to swim against the tide since you may not agree with the morals of your leaders whether it be safety or treatment.  Make no mistake about it, this takes courage on your part.  Be a leader, rage against the machine and begin a culture change and you can be proud of that person looking back at you in the mirror.

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