By Joe Atkins, Labor South
"Mr. Sam" said it best 20 years ago.
"In the beginning, I was so chintzy. … I really didn't pay my employees very well," the founder of Walmart said in his 1992 autobiography, "Sam Walton: Made in America." "I was so obsessed with turning in a profit margin of 6 percent or higher that I ignored some of the basic needs of our people, and I feel bad about it."
Not bad enough, however, to change the course or culture of the world's largest retailer. Walmart's "chintzy" attitude toward the wages and benefits of its workers isn't news. What may be news to many, however, is just how bad it is for workers at Walmart suppliers around the world.
This became tragically clear Nov. 24 when a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam's Club as well as for Sears, Disney, Sean Combs' Enyce and other Western corporations.
Walmart was quick to distance itself from the tragedy. Spokesmen said the company had ended relations with the factory prior to the fire and even conducted an audit that indicated safety problems there. Investigations by the New York Times, Bloomberg News and others have indicated, however, that a third of the factory's production lines were committed to Walmart and suppliers still used it this year.
In addition, Walmart apparently took a lead role in opposing an effort in 2011 to have corporations step forward and fund improved safety measures within the South Asian garment industry. Funding such measures "is not financially feasible" is how one top Walmart official described it in a document revealed by Bloomberg News reporters.
The Tazreen tragedy has sparked an international outcry. Protesters in Charleston, S.C., including members of the International Longshoremen's Association, last month showed their solidarity by briefly shutting down the Wando Welch Shipping Terminal, where the ship Maersk Carolina and its load of Tazreen-made, Walmart-bound clothing had docked.
Walmart workers across the country have staged walkouts and strikes for the past month to bring attention to the company's treatment of its workers. Walmart's assault weapon business has also come under scrutiny since the recent shooting deaths of young children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The garment and textile industries that once were the cornerstone of the economy of the U.S. South are now spread throughout Asia and are a $20 billion-a-year enterprise in Bangladesh alone. Walmart is a $1 billion customer of Bangladesh's garment factories.
What is life like in those factories? At the Tazreen factory, 70 percent of the 1,400 workers are women. Women are a dominant part of the industry's workforce. Wages are minimal, benefits few, hours long, and working conditions poor. An investigation by Dhaka fire officials after the Tazreen tragedy showed that at least 64 of 232 nearby factories have safety problems.
In September, an even worse tragedy took place in Karachi, Pakistan, where 262 workers died in a horrible fire at a textile factory. The factory had actually been given a thumbs-up in a safety inspection three weeks earlier by the industry-backed nonprofit Social Accountability International organization. Survivors of the blaze told of workers trapped by locked exits and windows.
A larger story exists here. It's a story with a long, sad history.
It goes back as far as 1911, when 146 workers, most of them young women, either burned to death or jumped to their death in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The women worked 60 hours a week in a factory where the doors were impossible to open -- an anti-theft measure, some believe. When fire broke out, they faced the choice of a fiery death or jumping from as high as the ninth floor to the street below. "Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking -- flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward," wrote United Press reporter William G. Shepherd in his harrowing eyewitness account.
Eighty years later, in September 1991, a fire broke out in the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., killing 25 and injuring 40 or more. "Let me out!" passers-by heard the trapped workers scream. A subsequent investigation revealed the doors were locked to prevent employees from stealing chickens.
Last June a 20-year-old worker died in an explosion that also injured two others at the Pascagoula, Miss., plant owned by the Madison, Miss.-based Mississippi Phosphates Corp. He was the second employee to die in an explosion at the plant in two weeks. Mississippi Phosphates has a dozen or more federal safety violations on its record and has faced some $20,000 in resulting fines.
The fire that killed three and injured three more workers on an oil platform in the Gulf Coast in November is a bigger story in the Philippines than here. The reason? The workers were all Filipino, and a class action lawsuit claims such workers in Louisiana live in slave-like conditions, working as many as 100 hours a week and sleeping under lock and key in a crowded bunkhouse.
In today's neo-liberal, global economy -- and Walmart is a key player in that economy -- workers are the cheapest commodity. Corporations spend millions on sophisticated public relations to create their own "Mr. Sam"-like image while overseeing a world of sweatshop labor that Charles Dickens would recognize. Meanwhile, we shoppers continue our merry search for sales, rarely, if ever, giving a thought to the hands that make the products we buy.
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.