You probably paid a cheap price for those groceries at Walmart this week, but you almost certainly didn’t pay a fair price.
Walmart is a case study of how the “free market” can distort the value of a basic human need: Every price tag in Walmart’s food inventory—which accounts for a quarter of the nation’s grocery bill—is the product of agricultural subsidies, financialized commodities exchanges, and hyperinflated marketing. So to uncover the true cost of cheap groceries, the advocacy group Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) followed the supply chain and uncovered violations at every link in the retailer’s “ethical sourcing” system.
Facing public pressure, Walmart has developed guidelines for ethical and sustainable sourcing, pledging that all outlets and suppliers “must fully comply with all applicable national and/or local laws and regulations…related to labor, immigration, health and safety, and the environment.” Specifically, the company mandates that suppliers follow legal protections for “health and safety of workers” and implement “measures for reducing air and water pollutants, energy and water usage, and waste.” The company recently launched a flashy “sustainability product expo” and rolled out new animal-welfare guidelines for livestock.
The human-welfare department appears to be lagging. While Walmart has come under fire for mistreating its store associates, the supply-chain workers are exploited in even more complex ways, with even less recourse against the company, as Walmart does not directly employ them.
The FCWA charges that Walmart is complicit in the systematic degradation of migrant workers at home and abroad. At the far end of the supply chain, Walmart’s giant market in farm-raised shrimp ties into exploitative fishing boats in the Pacific region’s infamous labor-trafficking system. Walmart profits indirectly from brutally enslaved and abused migrant labors, used to catch feed fish for the burgeoning aquaculture industry.
Walmart’s “savings” from cheap labor gets passed through its US supply chain, too: The federal government recently cracked down on a Walmart egg supplier for “discriminatory practices” in intrusive screening of immigrant workers. One major lettuce supplier, Taylor Farms, has been hit by a wage-theft class-action lawsuit along with scandals over alleged union-busting and abuse of migrant workers in California.