Vol. 71, no. 16
Wal-Mart’s high cost of low prices: Sweatshop workers tell their stories
Beatrice Fuentes was a humble flower cutter in Colombia. Although she did not make a lot of money, she had a reasonable salary and relatively good job security. That was before Dole Food Company, the multinational corporation, bought the 20 largest flower producers in Colombia – essentially monopolizing the Colombian flower market. Now Fuentes is fighting against all odds to ensure fairer employment practices for her co-workers.
Fuentes, along with two other labor activists, spoke in the Council Chambers on Wednesday about the evils of Wal-Mart and unfair labor practices around the world. Kotagarahalli Ramaiah Jayaram, a labor organizer from India spoke about his efforts to change his country’s practices. Cynthia Foley, an ex-Wal-Mart employee from Orlando, Florida recounted her experiences as a bottom-rung worker.
The organizers of the event made the point that Wal-Mart is not the only corporation with unfair labor practices. “We focus on Wal-Mart because it’s a really great poster child,” one organizer said. “Just because we don’t mention Nike or Gap doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that this sort of thing happens there.”
Their stories included abuses – physical, verbal and mental. Fuentes and her co-workers were limited to one bathroom break and one water break during 14-18 hour-long shifts. She and her co-workers were exposed to toxic pesticides, leading to health complications.
Jayaram worked in the garment industry for 21 years. He spoke of management that would force workers who made mistakes to stand in one place all day in front of them –like a child. Foley was sexually harassed by a male co-worker who called her names and shut her in a cooler.
“Wal-Mart doesn’t care much about workers,” Fuentes said. “Wal-Mart wants quantity and quality at the lowest cost.”
Jayaram pointed to Text Port Syndicate, a major supplier of Wal-Mart items, as an especially bad example. The syndicate has eight factories that together employ 10,000 workers. “They don’t pay the minimum wage,” he said. “India has a minimum wage of $2 per day. Instead they pay $1.75.”
Foley described Wal-Mart’s operating procedures. “They don’t train you adequately,” she said. “They want you to get to a point where you want to quit.”
When an antagonistic male co-worker started calling her names, she went to management and complained. Although management said they would speak to the man, no action was taken. The abuse did not stop. “He decided to put his hands on me,” she said. “He decided to put his feet on me.”
Each speaker made the point that women are always discriminated against, at every level. Dole, for example, started making women who applied for jobs take pregnancy tests before they could be hired.
“They began to hire more men because men don’t have to take maternity leave,” she said. “They take less time off to take their children to the doctor.” Jayaram discussed the higher burden placed on women. “They have families to look after and can’t survive on as little as they are paid,” he said.
The debate surrounding sweatshops on the LC Campus is not new. In the spring of 2005, the student body passed a referendum urging the bookstore to join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization that inspects factories to ensure fair employment practices. The Board of Trustees decided against the measure, partially because of the $1000 annual fee.
Wednesday’s event was designed in part to bring awareness to the issue of the WRC. “Ironically, it cost $1300 to get them here,” said Frazer Lanier (’07) one of the event’s organizers.
The event was also meant to raise awareness of the issue of sweatshops on the LC campus as well as the debate within Portland. Sweatfree PDX held a protest on Monday in front of City Hall to end taxpayer spending on sweatshop-produced goods such as uniforms. “Once the government passes it, people will believe it’s an issue,” Lanier said.
“Ever since the Co-op started, I thought that we shouldn’t just abstractly buy goods. We should make a concerted effort for people to teach us what it’s really like from a human perspective on the ground, not just a sales pitch. I love the opportunity to hear stories of workers and human rights activists to teach privileged US college students the reality of what they’re learning in their ivory towers,” Lanier said.