Walmart bargains raise ethical issues

I remember a news clip decades ago announcing a new retailer was moving into Canada. I hadn’t heard of it until then, but I remember a sound bite of a woman exclaiming that “this is excellent news for Canada, and will change the way we shop.” She was right.

The Walmart business model is astoundingly successful. After 50 years, it has become a global Wal-Street. It is the third largest employer in the world, with a staff count of 2.1 million (topped only by the People’s Liberation Army of China and the U.S. Department of Defense.) Last year, it clocked in at $447B in sales, with an astounding net income of $15.7B. The six members of the Walton family own almost 50 per cent of the company and are worth more than $102B. If Walmart were a country, it would be the 25th largest economy in the world. But, unfortunately, its success is generated by the mistreatment of its human resources and it’s all fuelled by blind consumerism.

Walmart employees consistently speak about unjust labour practices. Black Friday protests were held yesterday in an attempt to raise awareness to difficult working conditions. Workers continually describe ruthless managers, abuse, short hours and threats of retaliation should they complain. A class action lawsuit by 1.6 million female workers, dismissed last year because it was too large, is currently regrouping in multiple regions. It claims constant, calculated discrimination against women employees.

Lawsuits against Walmart are so extensive that several online databases, such as The Wal-Mart Litigation Project, have been set up to help lawyers navigate the process. Large corporations are sure to be targets for litigation but Walmart seems to be in a league of its own.

More than 100 categories of lawsuit are listed, including invasion of privacy; false imprisonment; outrageous conduct; discrimination against aged persons, persons of colour, religion and disabled persons; retaliation for taking medical leave; retaliation for filing civil rights complaints and wrongful wage withholding. In some jurisdictions, Walmart is under fire for having taken out life insurance on its employees, then collecting benefits upon their death. And there is also the ongoing human rights issues in its manufacturing supply chain.

Walmart hails itself as a philanthropic powerhouse, but is auspiciously absent from lists of significant philanthropists. While Walmart and its owners have donated millions of dollars to charity over the years, this adds up to about two per cent of their net worth. Compare this to Bill Gates at more than 50 per cent, or Warren Buffett at around 78 per cent, and you start to wonder just how sticky the Walton handshake really is.

Four members of the Walton family rank among the top 10 richest Americans but none are listed on Bill Gates’ The Living Pledge website, which tracks people who have pledged to donate a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. At some point, Walmart leaders must move from the accumulation of wealth to a larger social purpose.

I am well aware that the local Walmart supports charities that are important to our community. It is an employer for our neighbours and a retail magnet for our north end. Many of its employees are devoted, friendly and hardworking. But how do we manage the ethical tension that the big picture creates?

Choices in life are made based on our beliefs and values. We live in a free market society and Sam Walton seemed to have discovered capitalism’s steroid. In our quest for more and more for less and less, we need to ask ourselves to what extent do we support an entity with this much power to control people and the world economy? If I value dignity and fairness for all people, then what do I do with the knowledge I’ve gained of this company?

Like you, I’m trying to clothe and feed my family and affordable options are vital. But the simple realization that my savings have come at a very human cost makes me think twice before shopping at Walmart.

Dee-Ann Schwanke serves on multiple community and non-profit boards, and is currently completing her bachelor of commerce degree. She has lived with her family in St. Albert since 1999.


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