Wal-Mart’s predatory merchandising practices have become fairly well-known in recent years to those of us paying attention. Wal-Mart employees are paid minimum wages and denied sufficient health care, to the point where many employees have to use Medicaid, at taxpayers’ expense. At the other end, Wal-Mart suppliers are squeezed to such an extent that many have had no choice but to relocate their factories to China or other low-wage countries. The case of the Rubbermaid Corporation illustrates what happens when a well-known supplier of quality products, with a factory supporting over 1,000 workers in the United States, refuses to meet Wal-Mart’s demand to lower its wholesale prices below its manufacturing costs. Wal-Mart stopped buying Rubbermaid products, and the factory owners, resisting the move to China where they could pay wages low enough to meet Wal-Mart’s demands, closed its operations within a year—with the loss of 1,000 American jobs. Meantime, Wal-Mart-owned or -subsidized factories in third-world countries are booming.
Of course, the workers in such factories do not fare so well. For one example, at a factory in Bangladesh—the Beximco factory making shirts and pants for Wal-Mart stores—the workers are paid wages of 9 cents to 20 cents an hour, denied health care and maternity leave, and forced to work 87 hours a week without overtime pay, all in violation of Bangladeshi laws requiring a minimum wage of 33 cents an hour and overtime pay for anything over 48 hours a week. For rush orders, workers are forced to work throughout the night without a break, on top of their normal 7:30 am to 8:00 pm day.
Now we find out, from an article by Barbara Ehrenreich on Alternet.com (4/6/07), that the great merchandiser—with annual income exceeding that of many nations—has begun to think and act like a nation. It has instituted a massive "security" operation that employs ex-CIA agents and similar types to spy on and harrass employees who violate its protocols. As Ehrenreich describes it, one such employee, James W. Lynn, was followed by a Wal-Mart spy throughout Central America. The spy finally managed to find proof of his prey’s perfidy in Guatamela City, where he heard Lynn and a female companion "moaning and sighing" in their room. All this to "get the goods" on Lynn, who had apparently violated company secrecy by "openly criticizing the conditions he found in Central American factories supplying Wal-Mart stores." In other words, James Lynn’s "crime" against the Wal-Mart nation was reporting the truth about his company’s gross exploitation of workers throughout the world.
Ehrenreich makes the national connection explicit: in a nation in which the federal government routinely empoys spies to foment revolution, bring down uncooperative governments, kidnap and torture suspected enemies, and spy on its own citizens, its largest corporations (apparently Target stores have their own "security" goons to intimidate employees suspected of straying from the fold) see no reason why they shouldn’t follow suit. As she notes,
"When companies start imagining that they are nation-states, entitled to spy on, stalk, and imprison their own employees, then we are well down the road to an actual, full-scale dictatorship."
Indeed. And if it comes, the dictatorship will be enabled and implemented by each one of us who jumps at yet another "great bargain" while ignoring the exploited, intimidated, spied-upon and spat-upon fabric of which it is made.