Wal-Mart and Women: Skeptics Question New Initiative

Last week, Wal-Mart announced the latest component of its relatively successful campaign to shift its image from corporate villain to socially responsible role model.

The company promised that it would double its business with women-owned contractors and suppliers in the U.S. and internationally, and educate and train hundreds of thousands of women through its nonprofit Wal-Mart Foundation. That means the company will buy products from more women-owned factories and farms and hire more women to construct its stores.

Anti Wal-Mart rally on June 21, 2011 in New York

The move comes after Wal-Mart was up against the largest sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit in history, until the Supreme Court threw it out this summer.

Most labor and social justice advocates are glad to see any corporation change its practices in the face of social and economic pressure, so Wal-Mart’s recent announcement and its other recent efforts, such as contracting with minority suppliers, adopting sustainable environmental practices and increasing diversity and fairness in its stores, can be seen as small victories for campaigns that expose Wal-Mart’s practices.

But many labor and watchdog groups are still skeptical of the mega-corporation’s sincerity and the larger significance of its corporate responsibility initiatives, and they are calling on the company to continue examining and reforming its practices in a big way.

Jennifer Stapleton is spokesperson for Making Change at Wal-Mart, a campaign of the United Food and Commercial Workers international union. She said in a statement last week:

"Wal-Mart’s latest PR gambit is trying to cover up decades of unjust treatment of women, but women know better. Wal-Mart causes systematic economic harm to women in the U.S. and around the world, and that is precisely why Wal-Mart is trying to sell us on a new image. Wal-Mart keeps millions of women in the U.S. and around the world in poverty, fails to protect women from unacceptable sexual and other forms of workplace harassment and works many women to the bone in sweatshop conditions around the globe. And, according to the women in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart gender discrimination law suit, Wal-Mart pays women less than men.

In May and June, a group called Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Wal-Mart) surveyed 501 Wal-Mart associates. On a number of questions about pay, fairness and opportunity, women were consistently less satisfied and felt treated less fairly than male workers, by margins of about 10 to 25 percent, depending on the question.

More than half the workers answered that conditions were “poor” or “fair” in terms of having dependable schedules, opportunities for advancement and training, just procedures for discipline and termination and other measures.

These answers imply a mediocre to substandard employment situation–not overwhelming dissatisfaction, but not as positive a result as one might expect from a company that has gone into overdrive to improve its image. Three-quarters of workers also said they thought under-staffing is a serious problem that has resulted in customer dissatisfaction and/or messy stores.

And given the lawsuit and the company’s recent announcement, the group stressed that the disparity between men’s and women’s answers is significant. A release quoted Lancaster, Calif.-Wal-Mart worker Maggie Van Ness saying:

"If what’s going on at Wal-Mart happened at a small company, it would be bad enough. But because Wal-Mart’s the nation’s largest employer and sets standards for our communities and other companies, this is a full-scale epidemic. The data show widespread problems that are especially bad for women, who need these jobs.

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer of women in the U.S., with 808,000 women making up 65 percent of its domestic workforce as of 2001, according to a paper by Making Change at Wal-Mart. Between 1996 and 2001, women working at Wal-Mart earned on average $5,200 less per year than men, and were also much less likely to have salaried, upper-level management positions, according to a 2003 report. It also noted women in salaried positions earned $14,000 less per year than their male counterparts.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission negotiated an $11.7 million settlement with the company over complaints that at a Kentucky distribution facility, women were systematically discriminated against for certain positions that usually went to young males.

In light of Wal-Mart's recent promise to increase business with women, Wal-Mart critics also point to the story of Margaret Garner, an African-American construction-business owner whom Wal-Mart had celebrated for her lead role in building its controversial first Chicago store, on the city’s impoverished West Side. Four years after it opened, Wal-Mart has billed that store as a success and planned dozens more stores for Chicago. But Garner’s firm declared bankruptcy last year, driven by $11.9 million in debt from cost over-runs on the Wal-Mart, as reported by Crain’s Chicago Business. The Crain’s investigation explains that Garner’s firm, which received incentives under city programs for minority contractors, sent most of the actual work to firms owned by white males. Garner’s firm sunk into debt when it couldn’t pay those companies as promised.

Also, a University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University study alleges that the West Side Wal-Mart drove other local companies out of business, a long-standing complaint which Wal-Mart says is not borne out by facts.

But according to Making Change at Wal-Mart, "For decades, Wal-Mart has shown that when it “invests” in a community, that community can expect lost jobs, depressed wages, bankrupt local business, and lowering of labor standards to follow quickly. Women in the U.S. and around the world would be far better served if Wal-Mart would improve its labor practices, raise its wages, and use its power to stand up for human rights instead of undermining them through its day-to-day business practices.