Wal-Mart wins Sweatshop Retailer of the year

By Ruth Davenport

Behind its smiling employee faces and shopper-friendly prices, Wal-Mart is hiding something they don’t ever want you to find.

On Sat., Nov. 25, about 30 individuals gathered at the Southland Wal-Mart to protest the company’s continued use of sweatshops in foreign countries. Interspersed with "carols with a conscience," rendered by the activist group The Raging Grannies, speakers celebrated Wal-Mart’s dubious honour of receiving the Sweatshop Retailer of the Year award. The award was presented by the Ethical Trading Action Group in June in response to the Retail Council awarding Wal-Mart Canada Chief Executive Officer Dave Ferguson the Distinguished Canadian Retailer award for 2000.

The ETAG award credits Wal-Mart Canada with ignoring the Canadian government’s 1997 directive for Canadian companies to voluntarily cease imports from Myanmar, formerly Burma, due to human rights abuses in that country.

"On Nov. 17, the International Labour Organization voted unanimously to impose formal sanctions against Burma," said Estelle Kuzyk, co-chair of the Human Rights Committee of the District Labour Council. "Informal sanctions have been in place since 1997 and Wal-Mart has chosen to ignore them… it’s pretty much the overriding attitude of big corporations in North America."

According to Kuzyk, Wal-Mart still carries products made in Myanmar, despite promises to cease stocking these items. The Southland Wal-Mart management had no comment regarding the protests or Wal-Mart’s involvement with sweatshop enterprise.

Myanmar, along with Bangladesh, China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Saipan all engage in sweatshop production and child labour, said Bill Phipps. Phipps, former moderator of the United Church of Canada, is associated with a number of human rights organizations and has spoken with sweatshop workers in recent months.

"Part of the reason people get roped into sweatshops is because they provide jobs, and people need jobs," said Phipps. "They know very well that if they protest their working conditions, they’ll get fired and someone else will take their job. The bodies are there, and they’re desperate."

Sweatshop conditions vary from country to country, according to Phipps. Workers may earn between three cents and three dollars US per hour, which is usually less than the cost of living. Working hours vary between 10 and 20 hours a day, usually six or seven days a week. Workers generally receive two two-minute bathroom breaks per day and are subjected to routine searches, pregnancy tests, maltreatment and death threats. They are fired if they complain or attempt to organize unions.

According to both Kuzyk and Phipps, progress is being made in the drive to eradicate sweatshops.

"It’s astounding, the number of groups that are joining the campaigns," stated Kuzyk. "Consumers are listening, we’re getting a lot more promotion from smaller news sources and we’re being very well received."

"There are steps being made," agreed Phipps. "There certainly is increasing awareness among retailers and corporations about purchasing from places like Burma, but they need constant pressure from people like ourselves."

The Human Rights Committee is not calling for a general Wal-Mart boycott, said Kuzyk.

"We want people to shop with a conscience… check the labels, think critically about whether they need products made in terribly oppressive countries such as Bangladesh, China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Saipan."

In the end, said long-time human rights activist Greg Klassen, the whole issue is related to greed. Klassen urges Calgarians to increase their awareness of sweatshop enterprise and take what affirmative action they can to discourage it.

"If you have a soul, if you have a conscience, you should be concerned about this… it’s just logical," Klassen stated. "More and more people have to become aware about what’s going on. This issue is an old issue of corporations putting profit before people. That’s just pure greed. People should always come before profit."

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