Always Low Wages

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.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2004
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