Walmart was charged with committing severe environmental crimes, according to court proceedings in the United States.
The San Francisco U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Walmart admitted six counts of misdemeanor negligence of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail stores across the United States.
The company will pay approximately $81.6 million for their illegal conduct, the office said.
“Retailers like Walmart which generate hazardous waste are required to legally and safely dispose of the hazardous waste and dumping it down the sink was not legal or safe,” Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said.
“By mishandling of hazardous waste, pesticides and other materials in violation of federal law, Walmart put the public and the environment at risk. It also obtained an unfair economic advantage over other companies,” Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Environment and Natural Resources Department Division said.
The fines will go in part to fund environmental projects in communities affected by the violations and help prevent future damage to the environment, Moreno said.
Bosses’ profit-driven disregard for workers’ lives killed three and injured 34 in two factory building collapses in Cambodia less than one week apart.
“We are not surprised when they cave in, they are jerry-built buildings that owners put little money in,” said Say Sokny, general secretary of the Free Trade Union of Workers in a May 21 phone interview from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The first factory collapse occurred May 16 about 30 miles south of Phnom Penh at the Taiwanese-owned Wing Star Shoes, which employs 7,000 workers and produces shoes for Asics. A mezzanine used for storage collapsed under weight it wasn’t designed to bear. Three workers were killed and 11 injured, although 50 were caught in the wreckage.
Yarn Neat, an assistant stock manager, told the Wall Street Journal that the floor had started shaking when she helped load materials into the mezzanine a week earlier and that she was afraid to walk under it. She had raised her concerns with superiors, who did nothing.
In March workers at Wing Star Shoes stopped work and blocked the main road for one hour, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions.
Another 23 workers were injured during lunch May 20 as the shoddy building that housed the break room at Hong Kong-based Top World factory in Phnom Penh collapsed into a lake. The company produces for Swedish fashion giant H&M.
“Wages and health and safety are the most important issues for workers here,” Sokny said. “The working conditions are so bad that workers often faint on the shop floor because of heat, lack of ventilation, malnutrition, chemical exposure and long workdays.”
In January the Labor Ministry reported that more than 1,600 workers fainted at some 20 factories last year. The announcement came after the Free Trade Union gave the figure of 2,107 workers at 29 factories.
Strikes and other actions demanding wage raises and improved conditions are numerous. According to the FTU, some 85,000 workers at 101 factories were involved in strikes and other actions last year.
“It’s the only powerful tool we have,” Sokny explains. “We strike and do actions all the time. That’s the only way we can win anything.”
In December the Kingsland factory, which produces underwear for Walmart and H&M, closed and laid off workers without paying wages and severance. Starting Jan. 3 as many as 200 workers camped outside the plant in Phnom Penh to stop the company from moving machinery and other assets before workers were fully paid. On Feb. 27, 82 of the workers launched a hunger strike. Two days later Walmart and H&M agreed to a $200,000 settlement.
“We decided to go on a hunger strike to show that we are not workers who can be pushed around,” 26-year-old Sorn Sothy, a leader of the action, told Warehouse Workers United March 1. “We are strong, committed and united.”
On May Day garment workers marched to demand a raise in the monthly minimum wage from $80 to $150. The level is set by a Labor Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from the government, employers and unions.
“It’s supposed to implement a raise every fourth year,” Sokny said. “But nothing happens unless workers go into action with strikes and other protests. That’s how we won the raise to $80 in March. We need a bigger raise. Workers are hungry. The wages are not enough to pay rent, food and what your family needs.”
On March 28 Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an instruction that workers must stop striking and protesting. But they have continued, including in two actions that demanded reinstatement of workers’ representatives fired by bosses. In one instance some 100 workers gathered outside a provincial police station, demanding the release of seven workers accused of inciting others to protest.
Sokny said the challenge is to win more long-term improvements in wages and working conditions. The vast majority of workers are on short-term contracts, mostly three months. Those who the bosses see as leaders or “troublemakers” don’t get new contracts. New workers are often brought in with contracts that reverse previously won gains.
Until the mid-1990s Cambodia had no garment industry. After an explosive development during the last two decades, the industry now employs 500,000 in more than 500 garment and shoe factories, with an average size of 1,000 workers. More than 90 percent moving into newly created industrial production centers are women from rural villages.
The garment sector accounts for 90 percent of Cambodia’s export income.
The giant American retailer, which also has stores in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and several Central American countries, has been accused of systematically paying bribes in Mexico that total more than $24 million over the course of several years. The bribes were used to get permission to build in places where it is illegal to do so.
There is ample evidence that Walmart was not forced to pay bribes to do business, but rather that the company actively encouraged corruption in the country by establishing an aggressive policy of offering bribes to Mexican officials who broke the laws and regulations of the country.
The case is being investigated in the United States and Mexico, and the company is facing several lawsuits from pension funds that have invested in the company’s stock. The eventual sentences and fines could have a major impact not just on Walmart but also on Mexico – the company is Mexico’s largest private employer, with 2,275 stores and 221,000 employees.
An internal investigation by Walmart of its 27 international subsidiaries seems to have revealed evidence of bribes by Walmart in Brazil as well as China and India.
Walmart is not unique. British bank HSBC helped launder money for Mexican drug cartels for years. And people still remember the case of IBM in Argentina 15 years ago, when IBM paid officials at the state-owned Banco Nacion a total of $37 million in exchange for a contract to renovate the bank’s computer systems.
All of these cases – and hundreds of others with less publicity – hurt not only the companies involved but also the image of the region. The last Transparency International report only ranked three Latin American countries – Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica – above the world average for corruption. All of the other countries are perceived as having high corruption problems, and Venezuela is one of the worst of in the world, ranked 165 out of 176 countries.
Subverting the system
The development of a country depends on governments that establish and enforce rules and regulations that are the same for everyone, as well as a free-market system where all of the competitors play by the rules. When you can get an advantage by paying bribes, that system is subverted. And when the person who gets that advantage is Walmart, the victims are numerous, starting with their direct local competitors and including other potential international investors, who might think twice about investing in the market.
When a giant like HSBC is laundering drug money, it distorts the financial markets and subverts the democratic system.
The United States has taken a step in the right direction by legally punishing companies that commit bribery abroad. The situation would be even better if all countries adopted similar legislation.
The so-called multi-Latinos, the select club of Latin American multinationals, have the task of being agents of change, and should explicitly state a commitment to fight corruption in their statutes. These statutes should also include ethical standards to abide by when doing business throughout Latin America.
Latin American governments should establish an agreement to standardize corruption laws and penalties.
International development banks, like the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank, have taken a step in the right direction. Since a couple of years ago, any company that is guilty of corruption is barred from participating in projects financed by either bank.
The task sounds complicated and difficult, but it is worth it. Many studies have found a clear relationship between corruption, poverty and under-development – equal to the distortions produced in the way resources are distributed. It is obvious that corruption hurts countries where it takes place, and we need political will, both on the part of governments and business people, to get rid of this scourge.
“We got people who ain’t eaten for weeks here. They threw some grain into the crowd and there were people eating that shit up like it was waffles with maple syrup. I never seen anything like it. We like a Third World nation,” Lashonta Jackson, 43, a starving woman in the crowd recalled afterwards.
Hundreds of people stampeded the Walmart car park to get some food aid, as the WFP trucks came close. The stewards and aid workers marshalled the crowd into an enclosed area of the former shopping mall to distribute the sacks and boxes of wheat and rice.
“I gots me my first meal in over a week. Hmm hmm, it like Christmas here. Thank the lord for the food, it went straight down my gullet, I gots me a full stomach now, and I going to relax with a toothpick in the corner,” Jim Bob Mulrooney, 27, said licking his lips.
Chief operations director for the WFP, Margaret Seronam, spoke of her anguish at the plight of these Americans: “With a bankrupt government, a 20 trillion dollar deficit and millions of people starving, we are here to help America pull through its greatest nightmare. I’ve never seen anything as harrowing and disturbing as this. Even in Somalia and Zimbabwe, or Ethiopia it was never this bad.”
The combined worth of the 6 Walmart heirs and heiresses is greater than that of the bottom 41% of American families (48.8 million households). How do the grinning kids of Sam Walton stay so rich? By paying their employees slave wages and not providing benefits, forcing them to use food stamps and medicaid. Above, a poster by Miel Macassey that shows how Walmart siphons money from taxpayers so it can pay its workers (which represent 1% of the American workforce) an average of $8.81 an hour without having them and their kids drop dead of starvation.
DALLAS — On Thanksgiving afternoon, as freshly stuffed Americans prepared for the shopping bacchanal known as Black Friday, hundreds of Walmart workers readied themselves for a wholly different experience: joining strikes and labor actions planned for the next two days at some 1,000 Walmart stores around the country.
Here in Dallas, as well as in Miami and the San Francisco area, Walmart employees were planning to walk off work and demonstrate early Thursday evening, as shoppers began to arrive in pursuit of the ultra-cheap deals known as doorbusters. The strikers sought to protest low wages and a lack of benefits, while also challenging what they allege has been a pattern of Walmart’s retaliation against workers who try to organize. They hoped to use the Black Friday spotlight to sway shoppers to their side.
“It’s a question of education,” said Josue Mata, a maintenance worker at Walmart in Wheatland, Texas, and a member of OUR Walmart, the labor group that is coordinating the strikes. “We have to show people that we’re not just a crazy bunch of protesters.”
But Walmart, the world’s largest retail chain, was banking on the labor actions amounting to not much in the face of enormous consumer demand for what it provides best: a wide array of products at some of the very lowest prices available. “We don’t expect this to have a significant impact,” Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. “The overwhelming majority of our associates are excited for our Black Friday events.” (The company calls its workers “associates.”)
In short, the protests aimed at Walmart on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year may constitute a test of the nation’s sympathy for low-wage workers — many of whom earn so little that they qualify for food stamps — against the powerful American yearning for a great deal.
In Dallas, about 200 people were expected to protest Thursday night, according to Colby Harris, a three-year employee in the produce department of the nearby Lancaster, Texas, store who has become a public face for the workers’ movement. “This is only getting bigger,” he said over breakfast at Waffle House on Thursday morning.
Despite a notoriously unfriendly attitude toward unions, Dallas has become a main center for the strikes, along with Los Angeles and Chicago. Harris’ store was one of the first to host protests back in October, when, for the first time in Walmart history, its retail workers in 28 states went on strike.
Around 6 p.m. Thursday, Harris, Mata and 200 others — including Walmart employees, organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and activists from the local Occupy chapter — planned to meet at a hotel in South Dallas. The group would then split up to picket at multiple stores and regather around 10 p.m. at the Walmart Supercenter in Wheatland. In Miami and San Leandro, Calif., protesters were planning flash mobs complete with dance routines.
Mata acknowledged that approaching the bargain-hungry might be difficult. “The classic question [from local reporters] is, ‘Why don’t you just accept what you have?’ They say, ‘You should be thankful you have a job.'”
Like other strikers, Mata said many Walmart jobs pay barely enough to survive. According to the company’s internal pay plan, recently obtained by The Huffington Post, employees can work at Walmart for decades before they make much above minimum wage. And as the largest private employer in the U.S., Walmart has an outsized influence on working conditions in the retail industry as a whole.
Walmart says it has done little beyond the norm to prepare for the Black Friday strikes, which it expects to be minimal. But a handful of sources around the country as well as news reports claimed that Walmart managers were intimidating workers into not protesting. Vanessa Ferreira, an Orlando, Fla., Walmart worker, was charged with trespassing when she went on strike this week. Another worker in Oklahoma told The Nation that managers at his store informed workers they would see smaller bonuses if protests disrupted Black Friday shopping.
On Tuesday, OUR Walmart filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing Walmart of retaliating against striking workers. The previous Friday, Walmart had filed its own complaint with the NLRB, alleging that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which supports OUR Walmart financially, has illegally picketed in order to gain union recognition. Walmart has repeatedly denied that it has ever retaliated against its workers.
Fearing police and security confrontations, the strikers adjusted their plans to go inside the stores, according to Alan Morrisette, a field organizer for the union’s Making Change at Walmart Campaign. All demonstrations on Thursday and Friday would be held outside the stores, he said.
Walmart did not comment on how it plans to handle striking workers. “Each store has an individualized plan of how they will get customers in and out of stores and deal with large crowds,” said Lundberg. “If a walkout does happen at an individual store, the store management will judge that on a case-by-case basis. We think there are going to be so few of these it’s best to be handled individually.”
One worker in the Chicago area, who asked that her name not be mentioned for fear of losing her job, told The Huffington Post that managers earlier this week covered up her store’s employee rights notice, which informs workers of their right to concerted action. Her managers also implemented a new program that would give workers an extra 10 percent discount on Walmart purchases for working on Black Friday, she said.
Harris and Mata said the program, dubbed “associate appreciation day,” had been recently implemented in their Dallas-area stores as well. “They’re trying to get on our good side to get us to forget what it’s like most of the time,” said Harris.
In an ideal world, Harris said, Walmart would meet all of the strikers’ demands by publicly committing to raise pay, improve benefits and not impede workers’ efforts to unionize. But even if the company simply reached out to OUR Walmart to express an interest in compromise, he would be happy, Harris said.
“We already consider this a victory,” said Harris. “People are hearing us, and Walmart knows we’re not going to stop.”