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Employee Abuse At Wal-Mart Intolerable

By Brad Zambrello
On October 25, 2006

Like virtually every other corporation, Wal-Mart's only goal is to maximize its profits - even if meeting this goal comes at the expense of product quality, customer satisfaction or the health of the environment. However, unlike many of its corporate peers, Wal-Mart has an atrocious record with respect to workers' rights violations. Allegations have surfaced everywhere - from Alabama to California to Pennsylvania - that Wal-Mart has overworked its employees, failed to pay these employees for hours spent on the job, provided poverty level wages, created unsafe working conditions, engaged in rampant gender discrimination and broken child labor laws. Given the laundry list of allegations and court decisions against Wal-Mart, Americans should adopt more responsible consumption habits and refuse to shop at any of the retail giant's 3,900 stores.

While there are countless instances of employee abuse in Wal-Mart's long history, even today the company is bullying its employees. Wal-Mart's most recent offense is its attempt to scale back its number of full-time employees. According to The New York Times, which cited both Wal-Mart managers and investment analysts, the company is looking to systematically increase the percentage of its workers working part-time from just 20 percent to a whopping 40 percent. (Although Wal-Mart executives have denied these accounts, they have admitted that part-timers now make up 25 percent to 30 percent of the workforce - up from last October's 20 percent.) By doing this, Wal-Mart is able to lower its heath care coverage thus saving on heath insurance costs - as part-time workers must spend a year with the retailer before being eligible for Wal-Mart's oft-criticized company health plan.

According to a confidential, in-house memorandum, Wal-Mart has found that while experienced workers are equally productive as workers with just one year of experience, the former can cost substantially more to employ than the latter. From the company's recent changes in policy, it appears that Wal-Mart is acting on this recent finding and doing everything it can to encourage long-tenured employees to quit - allowing more costly workers to then be replaced with newer and cheaper employees, and thus further increase the company's profits.

One way the company is said to target workers is with wage caps. According a new company policy, workers reaching their position's maximum wage will not receive annual wage increases - and thus have their real earnings eaten by inflation - unless they are promoted to new positions. Although executives maintain that this policy is designed to encourage workers to take on more responsibilities, many workers assert that it's simply designed to irk long-term employees and encourage them to quit. Given that workers can remain toiling in the same low wage positions if better positions do not open up, it would seem the latter is closer to the truth.

Another new Wal-Mart policy, which many employees also believe is designed to harass full-time and experienced workers, allows managers to demand increased employee availability. Under the new policy, employees must accept the possibility of working any and all shifts or, according to some Wal-Mart workers, face drastic cuts in their work hours. Sally Wright, once a greeter in an Oklahoma store, saw her hours cut from 32 to eight per week when she refused to change her availability. Her story has been repeated almost exactly by employees from Washington, West Virginia and countless other parts of the country.

Thus, it appears that Wal-Mart is strong-arming employees into being available (quite literally) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This sort of open availability creates an instable schedule in employee's lives, as workers no longer have any fixed days, or even hours of days, to themselves. This sort of instability makes life outside of work increasingly difficult to manage, and can create familial problems for workers with dependents. Thus, the policy has lead many workers - including Ms. Wright - to quit. This, it would seem, is playing right into the company's hands, as these higher paid workers can be replaced by cheaper hires.

Clearly, Wal-Mart has overstepped its bounds as an employer - with respect to these policies - and needs to be reigned in through government intervention and popular disapproval.

Of course, the list of Wal-Mart's offenses doesn't end with obnoxious policies, as there's also the little matter of Wal-Mart's appallingly low wages. Even if the company's workers had not suffered cutbacks in their hours and mistreatment by their superiors, they would still have to live with wages that typically leave them below the poverty line. In fact, Wal-Mart's wages are so low that the average store costs taxpayers roughly $420,000 per year in welfare benefits. With respect to individual employees, meanwhile, the average Wal-Mart cashier made less than $8 per hour in 2003.

There is no question that Wal-Mart's treatment of its workers constitutes abuse - a fact evidenced by last week's massive worker walkout in Florida and the $72 million court decision against the retailer on Oct. 13. The question that does remain, however, is what can be done? While worker walkouts and lawsuits damage Wal-Mart, these injuries are minor wounds - Wal-Mart can do without one store for one day, and can easily absorb a million dollar lawsuit when its net income tops $10 billion.

The only way to stop Wal-Mart from abusing its workers is to become a responsible consumer. Americans must realize that slightly cheaper merchandise and slightly discounted drugs come at a grave cost - the well-being of the store's employees - that far outweighs the savings. Wal-Mart's recent campaign to cut labor costs even more, reducing them from appallingly low levels to nauseatingly low levels, exhibits a profound disrespect for the American worker. By financially supporting an enterprise that does this, Americans are disrespecting themselves (and, in particular, the working class). Accordingly, Americans should abstain from shopping at Wal-Mart until the company can produce tangible evidence that it is treating its workers better.

Brad Zambrello, the Commentary Editor, is a 7th-semester philosophy major double minoring in political science and English. His columns appear infrequently.

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