By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Walmart publicly preached "Buy America" three decades ago, and the Arkansas-based retail giant imported less than 6 percent of the products it sold in the United States. By 2006 four-fifths of its suppliers were based in China.
Then China's workers began protesting their conditions and eventually got the attention of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, which feared rising worker militancy in the workers' paradise. Over the past 10 years, blue-collar workers' wages have risen some 400 percent.
So like other U.S.-based corporate bottom-feeders, Walmart looked beyond China for suppliers that could meet Walmart's stringent cost demands through low wages and poor working conditions. They found their new partners in Bangladesh, home of the world's lowest wages. The cost of those minimal conditions became clear last November with the Tazreen garment factory fire near Dhaka that killed 112 workers and again, even more so, in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April that killed 1,129 workers.
A result of those tragedies has been a global spotlight on the U.S. companies fed low-priced products by suppliers in Bangladesh that could care less about safety conditions or workers' livelihood. Even as major European companies responded by agreeing to a new, legally binding accord requiring independent inspections of supplier factories, Walmart, J.C. Penney, Sear’s, Macy's, Target, Gap, and other U.S. firms resisted. American greed countenances little or nothing that stands in the way of its insatiable appetite. And neither do its defenders in Washington.
Expect Walmart and Co. to be looking even farther beyond China and even beyond Bangladesh now in the "race to the bottom." Cambodia has already been a beneficiary, but now workers are protesting there, too, and wages are rising. The New York Times recently reported that industrial wages in Cambodia have grown 65 percent in the last five years.
"The race to the bottom has hurt workers all over the world," Hong Kong's top independent labor leader and Labour Party chair Lee Cheuk-yan told me during an interview in Hong Kong in June. "The ability of capital of moving to the cheapest labor is very efficient from their point of view, but from our point of view it is a race to the bottom. Even Chinese labor now is seen as too expensive, and they are moving to Bangladesh, Cambodia. Myanmar will be next. When will it end? The ability of capital to move around so easily is hurting workers everywhere."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, indeed will be next. With military rule in that long-tortured country now allowing greater democracy and outside investment to aide its disastrous economy, the corporate bottom-feeders are licking their chops. "Foreign governments and multinationals have converged on a country that occupies a unique geostrategic position between the new Asian superpowers of India to the west and China to the east," reported The Economist in a special report in May. "Private companies are jostling to capture a share of an almost virginal consumer market of some 60 (million) people" -- and, let us not forget, cheap, really cheap, workers.
Workers at the Japanese-owned Famoso garment factory in Yangon earn the equivalent of $100 a month, "a quarter of the going rate in China," The Economist reports. "The mix of low wages, a plentiful supply of labour and access to American and European markets should mean that many more Famosos will be set up in Myanmar."
Walmart probably doesn't yet have an image problem in Yangon (Myanmar's capital, once known as Rangoon). Not like it does here in the United States.
Back in May the retailer agreed to pay $82 million in fines after admitting guilt in the improper dumping of hazardous wastes in Missouri and California. Walmart workers and warehouse workers for Walmart suppliers have staged walkouts and strikes in recent months to protest the litany of worker abuses that have made Sam Walton's corporate creation infamous.
Adding insult to injury, the District of Columbia Council in Washington passed a "living wage" bill that would require Walmart to pay its employees a minimum of $12.50 an hour if the retailer opens the six stores it has planned there. Walmart was aghast, of course.
Can you blame the city's leaders? Remember this multi-billion-dollar company has been so chintzy with its workers that 46 percent of their children had no health insurance or were dependent on Medicaid in 2006. A congressional report at the time showed that each Walmart store generated an average $420,750 in Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing costs to taxpayers.
Don't know whether members of the Walton family -- or other corporate leaders -- are reading George Orwell's Burmese Days (a book about Britain's colonial rule of that country) to prepare for their next adventure, but folks in Yangon better get ready. The corporate colonialists and imperialists are planning a major comeback.
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.