Walmart was in the news headlines again this week. We read the latest about the ongoing gender discrimination case- the one Walmart lawyers argue shouldn’t even be heard. For the last 10 years, no judge has had the opportunity to listen to these women’s stories. Odds are that the Supreme Court will side as usual with big corporations, forever ending the chance we will all hear these stories of women who face discrimination working at Walmart.
But these women’s stories are not the only ones being denied exposure. Workers in all facets of the numerous Walmart supply chains remain voiceless in the face of abusive treatment. Walmart’s owners, the Waltons, enjoy status as one of the world’s wealthiest families while denying basic rights to millions of employees and subcontracted workers.
Fortunately, some workers are speaking out beyond Walmart- these workers have found support with each other, unions, and NGOs fighting for labor rights through the Sweatshop, Warehouse, Walmart Worker True Tour. The solidarity wells up when they tell their stories to attentive audiences across major cities.
At Tufts University in Boston last Tuesday evening students, staff, labor unions, and nonprofit organizers listened to the voices of Walmart workers. Kalpona Akter, Aleya Akter, Robert J. Hines, Jr., Cynthia Murray, and Babul Akhter talked about Walmart’s labor violations, discrimination, and abuse.
Kalpona translated with conviction from her first language for the Bangladeshi workers. She knew her ability to communicate others’ stories across language barriers was the most important thing she could be doing right then. It was the only way we could hear firsthand the sweatshop conditions experienced by those working in garment factories subcontracted by Walmart.
Aleya spoke softly but quickly, pouring out details of human rights abuses exploited sweatshop workers endure: low wages, forced overtime, very little restroom access, sleeping on the production floor, verbal and physical abuse. She said it was “common to be threatened, beaten, fired, and sometimes put in jail, too”. Aleya emphasized any small improvements in the last decade’s working standards in the clothing industry came because “workers raised their voices- not Walmart first making change”.
Robert spoke with raw frustration about his experience as a temp worker unloading trucks for Walmart, when his time sheets were “lost” resulting in decreased pay for weeks at a time. Robert spoke compassionately about wanting to support his family, yet never lost his sense of humor and smile despite the sobering occasion. He ended on a serious note though. Looking hard at the crowd he said about Walmart, “They are going to mistreat you. They are going to manipulate your however they can.”
Cynthia spoke with hope and mistrust colliding in every other statement. Describing gender discrimination at the Walmart store where she has been an associate for 11 years, she said people are “afraid of Walmart, afraid to come forward” with labor concerns. She talked about her friend, a woman who worked her way into a management position over the years. When two men were hired as her subordinates, they started at the exact same salary. Yet Cynthia said “Walmart could be a good company” – if they ended practices like this instance of gender discrimination and other worker rights abuses.
Babul spoke emotionally about the physical violence he and Kalpona experienced, while Kalpona translated again. False criminal charges, jail time, beatings, and death threats are all daily realities for Babul, Kalpona, and other labor rights activists in Bangladesh. He believes it’s possible for Walmart to put an end to the violence, but he remains waiting.
Event organizers from the International Labor Rights Forum, SweatFree Communities, Jobs with Justice, and United Food and Commercial Workers spoke after these workers. They spoke passionately about solutions- like the right to organize unions and campaigns to make government purchases sweatshop-free!
So while Walmart might not want to listen, the Sweatshop, Warehouse, Walmart Worker Truth Tour is a megaphone. Workers might be silenced in one court case because of corrupt politicians, but workers are telling their stories anyway, demanding change.
We must make change! As Russ Davis from Massachusetts Jobs With Justice said, “Walmart sets the standard for all workers- Is this the kind of society you want to be a part of? A race to the bottom?”