The Common Good
February 2004

Always Low Wages

by Brian Bolton | February 2004

Where would Jesus shop? Not Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart proudly touts that it saves consumers money by forcing suppliers to cut the fluff and get competitive. For most clock-punching employees of Wal-Mart’s stores, warehouses, and suppliers, however, lower prices equal lower wages.

The recent raid of Wal-Mart stores by federal agents yielded 300 illegal employees of the cleaning companies under contract with Wal-Mart. Racketeering charges have been filed on the immigrants’ behalf against the cleaning vendors and Wal-Mart. The suit claims Wal-Mart managers were aware of workers’ illegal alien status and cooperated with cleaning contractors to demand extra hours without extra pay.

Wal-Mart benefits from its lower-cost vendors, who manufacture many Wal-Mart products in Mexico, China, and Bangladesh. Laborers in these factories frequently work more than 80 hours per week for a few dollars a day. These factories are the reason apparel-maker Levi Strauss is closing its last U.S. manufacturing facilities this year. After 150 years of making jeans at 60 U.S. factories, Levi’s will sell only imported jeans and has introduced a low-price line at Wal-Mart in hopes of saving its failing business. When manufacturing jobs float overseas, many U.S. workers turn to one of Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million jobs—not much of a consolation prize.

Most "full-time" Wal-Mart employees don’t see 40-hour weeks and, at an average of $7.50 per hour, barely make enough to shop at their own stores. While Wal-Mart is the largest U.S. employer, it is also one of the most controversial, as current domestic labor disputes reveal. For instance, the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Southern California is protesting Wal-Mart’s incoming "supercenters," which will undercut existing retailers in the area.

MEANWHILE, WAL-MART steers employees away from unions, resorting to extremes when necessary. After Wal-Mart opened its first supercenters nationwide, meat workers frustrated by low pay, lousy benefits, and abusive treatment voted themselves into the first successful union presence at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart responded by closing all of its fresh-meat departments and eliminating those jobs.

Almost 1.5 million current and former female employees are suing Wal-Mart in California’s largest sex-discrimination case in history. The plaintiff’s case, according to Fortune magazine, shows that as Wal-Mart "associate" rank increases, the number of female employees decreases, and that men’s salaries are consistently higher than women’s salaries at all employment levels. Wal-Mart spokesperson Mona Williams told Fortune, "We’ve spent so much time making sure we had a world-class distribution system and supplier network that we probably did not pay as much attention to making sure we got the personnel stuff right." Wal-Mart is now busy trying to change its public image, but Wal-Mart needs more than a makeover. It needs accountability.

Who provides both power and conscience to Wal-Mart? Shoppers and shareholders, so far, have consented that lower prices and more stores are more important than honorable vendor and employment standards. It is inconceivable that Wal-Mart, king of counting the financial cost, is unaware of the human cost of wage levels and working conditions in its suppliers’ businesses. Wal-Mart’s power comes with responsibility to pay just wages. With hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees below poverty-level income, corporate contributions to community and charity are not enough.

Wal-Mart expects to reap $1 billion in sales of "Christian" merchandise in 2003, only the doorstep of a much larger market. Evidently, Christians are shopping at Wal-Mart. But what are we buying, when a dollar saved in the store is another dollar squeezed from the life of "one of the least of these?"

Preachers and Sunday school teachers need to be asking Christians more about what our dollars support, and in Wal-Mart’s case, who’s paying for consumer "savings." A favorite preacher of mine says, "If you want to know what people care about, look in their checkbook" (or Visa statement, as the case may be). Our purchases ought to reflect deeper values than just "always low prices." Christians have asked Wal-Mart for cleaner magazine and CD content. Perhaps it’s time to demand cleaner corporate character as well.

Brian Bolton is news/Internet assistant at Sojourners.

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