Last month, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. released its 2005 Report on Ethical Sourcing. This report is meant to show consumers all the progress the company has made in 2005 in protecting labor rights at its supplier factories overseas. Given the report’s contents, one would think that the company would want to trumpet its record on labor to friends and critics alike. However, Wal-Mart quietly published the document on its website without any kind of formal announcement. It’s not hard to see why; once again, Wal-Mart’s public statements don’t match up with sweatshop workers’ reality.
Workers at a garment
factory in the Philippines would likely be amazed to learn that the
“enhancements” Wal-Mart made to its Ethical Standards program include a
formal recognition of the right to join trade unions and bargain
collectively. Chong Won Fashions, Inc. is located in the Cavite Export
Processing Zone, a special economic region established by the
government where already weak Filipino labor laws are watered down even
further. Wal-Mart is currently Chong Won’s primary customer, and a
violent labor crisis that erupted at the factory last month illustrates
the total irrelevance of the retail giant’s newfound “respect” for
Employees at Chong Won tried for years to form an independent union to press for better wages and working conditions, with factory managers fighting them at every turn. Even after workers voted to form the United Workers of Chong Won (known by its Tagalog initials NMCW) in 2004, management has refused to recognize the union or negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. In September, when the union threatened to strike in protest, the company turned to intimidation and brute force to keep the factory union-free.
According to the Workers’ Assistance Center (WAC), a Filipino NGO monitoring the situation, Chong Won security guards first attempted to break up the union’s tent shelter by force, sending several union members to the hospital. A Wal-Mart factory auditor attended a subsequent meeting between the union and factory management, but refused to pressure management to negotiate or call off the security forces. To the contrary, Wal-Mart’s representative deemed the union picket line illegal, implicitly justifying the violent behavior of the security forces.
After the union formally declared a strike on September 25th, the situation deteriorated even further. Police and security guards twice attacked the picket line with clubs and riot shields, then set up a blockade to keep the strikers from obtaining food and water. Three days later, police detained eight workers for attempting to bring food to the picket line. As of this writing, these 8 workers remain in police custody and have not been charged. Maybe they should use their one phone call to dial Wal-Mart’s Global Ethics Helpline; according to the Report on Ethical Sourcing, “every complaint [Wal-Mart receives] via that helpline is investigated immediately and is subject to corrective action.”
Wal-Mart’s 2005 Report bafflingly categorizes abuses of union rights as “hidden violations.” In the company’s own words, “it is easy to observe whether a factory has the correct number of fire extinguishers or toilets…[I]t is harder to uncover whether factory management is respecting workers’ right to Freedom of Association…” Be that as it may, reports of security forces beating union workers suggest that something may be amiss. The crisis at Chong Won is anything but hidden, and Wal-Mart would do well to use its considerable power as the factory’s chief buyer to bring this crisis to a swift and satisfactory end.
This is not the first time Wal-Mart has faced criticism for its labor practices overseas. In 2005, the Washington, DC advocacy group International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wal-Mart workers from four different continents, alleging widespread labor rights violations throughout the company’s global supply chain. Trina Tocco, ILRF’s Campaign’s Coordinator, has harsh words for Wal-Mart’s recent report: “In light of the situation at Chong Won Fashions, it’s ironic that Wal-Mart says it wants to change its auditing program ‘from a policing approach to a coaching approach.’ The company doesn’t get involved when the police are beating and jailing workers, and they’re not coaching management to resolve the situation peacefully.” ILRF calls on Wal-Mart to keep production at the factory and to facilitate negotiations between Chong Won management and the striking workers.