Point Austin: Let 'Em Eat Op-Eds!

From Managua to Guang Zhou, it ain't easy being Wal-Mart

Kate Chen and Ana Barahona
Kate Chen and Ana Barahona (Photo By John Anderson)

When Ana Barahona, visiting from Nicaragua, dropped into a U.S. Wal-Mart, she was stunned to see slacks similar to those she had sewn in a factory back home priced at $29.99. "They pay us 12 cents to produce those pants," she said Tuesday through a translator on the UT campus. "Seeing them at that price, it gave me chills – I wanted to vomit." While you're pausing to calculate what intermediate costs might justify that ferocious retail markup, recall also the conditions under which Barahona worked, in a "free-trade zone" beloved by transnational corporations: women age 19 to 25 (summarily dismissed for being "too old" or "too fat") on a production line, using toxic chemicals with no protective equipment, allowed no more than two bathroom passes a day, subject to periodic 24-hour lock-ins with no overtime pay, further subject to firing and blacklisting for such offenses as getting pregnant or talking union. Seeing the results of her labor in a Wal-Mart, said Barahona, shocked her anew "to see how they exploit us." (She since moved to a Nicaraguan-market factory and also works as a labor organizer in the free-trade maquilas.)

"I just want people to know," she said, "that the clothing Wal-Mart customers buy, it carries the blood of the people who make it."

Barahona is touring under the sponsor-ship of the women's labor group STITCH (www.stitchonline.org), the Campaign for Labor Rights (www.clrlabor.org) and other international labor groups. She was joined by Kate Chen of Guang Zhou, who told even more harrowing tales of Chinese factories producing toys for Wal-Mart, Disney, McDonald's, and other corporations. The state union is a Stalinist joke; workers are often injured by unmaintained equipment; insurance, social security, and workers' comp are fairy tales. "I worked under two contracts," said Chen, "a 'legal' one that I have no copy of, but is shown to outside inspectors, and an illegal one that requires me to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 25 cents an hour."

The Wise Men

Wal-Mart insists that these charges are false, and its supply companies subscribe to a rigorous company code of conduct, enforced by regular inspections. The workers say the inspections are nothing but "window-dressing," often announced weeks in advance, and that workers are either rewarded for lying about factory conditions or else know that their jobs depend on it. According to Trina Tocco of the International Labor Rights Fund, "Even Wal-Mart admits that only 8% of their audits are unannounced; they say they have a goal of 20% – but they don't report where or when such unannounced inspections have actually occurred."

The workers spoke a day after the Statesman's Monday re-publication of John Tierney's op-ed from The New York Times ("Third World has Wal-Mart to thank for jobs"), nominating the world's largest retailer for a Nobel Prize for "lifting people out of poverty." That's roughly akin to crediting the slave trade for liberating African-Americans from lives of rural privation, but hey, you don't get to be an international Times pundit by sweating the small stuff.

I've spent enough time on factory lines – steel mills, machine shops, pre-fab homes, Fiberglas boats – to know that no columnist should be allowed to write one word about working people until he's spent a few months at manual labor, for minimum wage. (If Barbara Ehrenreich can do it, so can George Will.) The thought of Thomas "My Brain Is Flat" Friedman trying to explain, to his Nacogdoches shop foreman, what he learned of modern production methods from a cabdriver in Mumbai ... ah, well, I can dream, can't I?

Tierney, lifting most of his information from recycled Wal-Mart propaganda, thinks it's peachy that some foreign "sweatshops" (his sneering quotation marks) pay $2 a day, more than villagers earned from farming (driven into destitution, he fails to note, by subsidized Western "free trade"). Ana Barahona is familiar with that princely wage. "He doesn't mention that the company deducts $1 for lunch and 50 cents for transportation," she said. "A lot of the women skip the meals so they have something left." Well, I suppose that makes it easier for them to stay sufficiently slender to keep their jobs.

Get With the Flow

In his panegyric to Wal-Mart, Tierney draws heavily from the neoliberal musings of Michael Strong, who happens to have an Austin connection. He's the co-founder, with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, of FLOW, a "transpartisan initiative ... devoted to liberating the entrepreneurial spirit for good." Mackey has never been content to be the world's most successful upmarket greengrocer. He wants to be known as the philosopher-king of libertarian altruism.

Nevertheless, Strong makes Mackey sound positively self-effacing. As both CEO and Chief Visionary Officer (I swear, I'm not making this up) of FLOW, Strong posts on his Web site (www.flowproject.org) reams of laughably self-absorbed bilge on how he learned to abandon evil leftist politics and working-class solidarity when he came to understand that libertarian economics – under which unregulated self-interest and capital accumulation are the only public virtues – provide the only path to international prosperity and peace. Tierney trumpets Strong's new "social justice" slogan: "Act locally, think globally: Shop Wal-Mart."

At least since Voltaire's Prof. Pangloss, it's no news that rich people like to be celebrated for getting even richer. But now that Wal-Mart has declared they're muscling into the organic-foods market, I wonder just how long Mackey's personal Pangloss will be singing Wal-Mart's praises, especially when they start undercutting Whole Foods' suppliers and making "animal-friendly" factory farming as obsolete as the subsistence farming it exterminated.

Frankly, I prefer the visionary wisdom of Ana Maria Barahona. "We're not here to tell you not to shop at Wal-Mart," she said. "But we just want you to know what goes into that clothing. ... I cannot be quiet, I cannot keep still. I don't want my children to live this way." end story

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Wal-Martorganized labor, Ana Barahona, Wal-Mart, Kate Chen, STITCH, John Tierney, John Mackey, Michael Strong

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