Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Evil Empire Behind That Yellow Smiley Face

A shadow is racing across the American landscape gobbling up land, destroying families and businesses, tearing the very soul out of what it means to be American. It is a devouring beast that ruthlessly stomps on workers, neighborhoods, competitors and suppliers. It is sending millions of jobs overseas while distributing our money to countries like China and Russia. It leaves behind cities in decay and turns once vibrant cultural towns into industrialized seas of concrete. Yet, the majority of Americans welcome it into their homes and even invite it into their communities with open arms. What started out as the ideological American success story has become a money thirsty vampire sucking every penny it can from the every American consumer and every dime from every supplier. Wal-Mart has become the evil empire.

How can we not welcome a company that claims to slash prices to the bone in order to provide us "Always Low Prices," even though they banked over $7 billion dollars last year making it one of the most profitable entities on the planet? With almost $250 billion dollars a year in revenue, they account for 2.5% of the Gross Domestic Product and are the largest single employer. I can't fault them for trying to make a buck because that it what business is all about but at what cost are we as a society paying for it?

They have 1.4 million employees, whom if you believe the commercials, are excited about the career possibilities, money and benefits that they receive at Wal-Mart. Truth be told, only 70% of their workers are full time and therefore qualify for benefits. For a 40 hour week, the average yearly wage is a whopping $15,000 but Wal-Mart considers 28 hours a week to be "full time" which drops the gross wages down to under $11,000 per year. The other 30% of the workers don't even get this level of poverty. The great health care benefits that they tout only come after two years of service, which with above 50% annual turnover rate (some as high as 300%), means very few qualify. In fact, only 38% of Wal-Mart's employees are covered under their insurance and those that are, pay over a third of their own insurance premiums.

In the mid nineties, Wal-Mart's slogan was "We buy American," but after being called out several times on their claim, they dropped the slogan in 1998. By 2001, even their world purchasing headquarters had been moved to China and now we are the largest importer of Chinese-made products in the world at the tune of over $10 billion a year. Seventy-one percent of all toys sold in the United States now come from China and Wal-Mart sells one out of five of the toys we buy.

Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee has reported, "In country after country, factories that produce for Wal-Mart are the worst," adding that the bottom-feeding labor policy of this one corporation "is actually lowering standards in China, slashing wages and benefits, imposing long mandatory-overtime shifts, while tolerating the arbitrary firing of workers who even dare to discuss factory conditions." The NLC interviewed workers in China's Guangdong Province where Wal-Mart's popular action figures and dolls are made and found that 16-hours days are the norm with 20-hour shifts not uncommon. China's minimum wage is 31 cents per hour while the average production worker at these factories only are paid 13 cents per hour. From their wage, $1.95 per week is subtracted for rental of their 7 feet by 7 feet company dorm, which the share with normally a dozen other workers. They also pay $5.50 a week for food and must pay for all their own medical treatment and are fired if too ill to work. Not a single workers had heard of Wal-Mart's "code of conduct" that they claim to uphold at all their production facilities.

When Wal-Mart moves into a community, its effect is like that of a neutron bomb, sucking out the economic vitality and all of the local character. With Supercenters averaging 200,000 square feet (or four football fields under one roof), these things have more kill power than ever and devour local businesses at an alarming rate. Drug stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and many other retailers are all being driven out of business leaving behind vacant shells in once vibrant downtown streets. Non-competing businesses are also leaving the downtown areas fighting to set up next to a Wal-Mart in order to capitalize off their customers, leaving behind even more empty buildings. For every two jobs that Wal-Mart creates, three decent jobs are lost, replaced by a staff of part-time poorly paid employees that can hardly build the family wealth necessary to sustain a middle-class living standard.

Why should we accept this? Is it our country, our communities, our economic destinies -- or theirs? A new Supercenter is being built now at a rate one every 1.65 days. How much time is left before it is too late to stop them? Is it already too late?

No comments: