Today is the “Global Day of Action for Decent Work at Walmart.” On November 19, Walmart workers in 10 countries are holding demonstrations to highlight the company’s poor labor practices from its retail stores throughout the entire supply chain, and to call for a living wage for Walmart’s global workforce and countless supply chain workers.
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Coordinated by UNI Global Union, a global union federation representing 20 million workers worldwide, Walmart workers and their supporters in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, India, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere are protesting for respect for freedom of association, living wages, consistent scheduling and employment security.
Walmart has become the poster child for the immiseration of workers in the Global North and the exploitation of workers in developing countries. While less publicized than protests in the United States, the international component of the campaign for workers’ rights at Walmart is critically important, and the past year has seen several important developments.
Labor Activism at Walmart in South America
Along with being the largest private-sector employer in the United States, Walmart is the world’s largest retailer and largest private-sector employer with 2.2 million employees. Walmart has fought aggressively against unions throughout North America, but workers have independent unions at Walmart stores in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere. South American unions involved in the UNI Global Union Alliance @ Walmart have supported US workers, and have engaged in protests of their own to improve standards. These actions show Walmart workers and their US supporters that they are part of a larger international struggle, and that workers in these countries are succeeding.
In Brazil, UNI Global Union has built an alliance of unions, which have met with Walmart around a common platform of problems. 2013 saw the first industrial action at Walmart stores in Limeira and Sao Paulo. In the vast Sao Paulo consumer market, Walmart membership has increased by 10 percent. Walmart has also run into various legal difficulties in Brazil. It was fined $10 million for harassing staff in a case brought by the Public Attorney’s Office, and has advised shareholders that it set aside $69 million for labor fines in Brazil. In August 2014, the Public Attorney’s Office in the Brazilian state of Alagoas announced it was suing Walmart for $55 million over labor rights abuses.
The Argentine Federation of Retail and Service Workers – well established in the country’s retail sector – set up a network at Walmart to coordinate workplace actions, the first such inter-union network set up to confront a single multinational in Argentina. The overwhelming majority of Chilean Walmart workers are unionized, but were fragmented into several unions before UNI Global Alliance created a Walmart alliance. Workers from the company’s discount brand in Chile, aCuenta, went on strike over poor pay and conditions, and occupied the company’s headquarters in Santiago.
European Pension Fund Activism
Workers’ protests have not gone unnoticed by large European investors in Walmart. In October 2013, a number of Swedish pension funds worth a combined total of $140 billion announced they were divesting from Walmart because of its “systematic abuses of workers’ rights . . . [Walmart] denies employees their right to join trade unions.” The divestment followed meetings with members of the organization of US workers, Our Walmart.
The decision of major European pension funds to divest from Walmart because of its labor rights abuses in the United States is hugely important. Previous divestment decisions had been based on labor and human rights abuses in Walmart’s global supply chain. The capital strategies campaign at Walmart has also enjoyed some domestic successes – persuading investors that the failure to invest in workers is hurting the bottom line – and the divestment decisions have helped solidify Walmart’s reputation as the poster child for labor rights violations.
Bangladesh Factory Safety Accord
In its global supply chain, Walmart has been at the center of controversy concerning labor standards in the Bangladesh textile industry. The building collapse at Rana Plaza in April 2013, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 workers, resulted in the creation of the landmark “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” a legally binding agreement involving labor rights NGOs, the global union federations IndustriALL and UNI Global Union, and over 150 (mostly European) brands and retailers.
Along with The Gap, Walmart spearheaded a fundamentally different plan for factory safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance, which has the outward trappings of independence and obligation, but none of the reality. Only 26 brands and retailers, mostly from the United States, have signed up to the Alliance. The Alliance is a unilateral initiative that does not provide for participation by worker representatives, or even allow workers to refuse dangerous work. Its safety inspections are not independent, and it does not commit funding for safety repairs. Most importantly, unlike the Accord, it is not legally binding. It is a continuation of the voluntary system of corporate self-regulation established over the past two decades, which has resulted in numerous deadly fires in Bangladesh. Since April 2013, further deadly fires have occurred in factories that are supplying Walmart and other Alliance companies, exposing their failure to remedy the fundamental problems in these factories.
This year’s Black Friday protests at Walmart stores in the United States will likely be the largest in the history of the company. But this Wednesday’s Global Day of Action shows that the struggle for respect for labor rights at Walmart is an international struggle involving workers on several continents. Global action will be key to winning the campaign.