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What Will Wal-Mart Do? | The Nation

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The Notion

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What Will Wal-Mart Do?

On Monday, Bishop Alberto Ramento, a dedicated advocate for workers' rights, was stabbed to death in Tarlac City, in the Philippines. His body was found in his church. Local police claim that Ramento was the victim of an ordinary robbery, but his murder takes place in the context of a wave of violence against leftists and other human rights advocates who have criticized the Arroyo government. Ramento had received death threats as a result of his activism, and he is the second pro-labor clergyman to be killed in the province, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Bishop Ramento was chair of the board of the Philippine Workers' Assistance Centre (WAC) in Cavite, where workers have also been under violent attack in recent weeks. (His colleagues there feel strongly that his was a political murder, not a robbery.) According to WAC, a church-affiliated labor organization that has had phenomenal success organizing workers in the intensely militarized Free Trade Zone, the owners of the Chong Won Fashion factory have been trying to destroy their employees' union by force.

Last week, a combination of municipal and free trade zone police, and private security, attacked strikers who were peacefully picketing, injuring twenty-two of them. It was the second violent attack on the picket line since September 25, when the workers first went on strike to protest the owners' refusal to negotiate a first collective bargaining agreement. At least sixty-six of the striking workers have also received termination notices, according to WAC.

The factory's largest customer is Wal-Mart. Last month, after repeated violations of workers' right to organize, the retailer audited the factory at the request of Maquila Solidarity Network (MSM), an anti-sweatshop group based in Toronto. But Wal-Mart ignored some of MSM's more crucial requests: the company did not meet with WAC to hear the workers' side of the story, nor did it put enough pressure Chong Won's owners to respect freedom of association, so violence at the factory has escalated.

Last year, around the same time that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott started finding his inner tree-hugger, Wal-Mart also began cultivating a better relationship with North America-based anti-sweatshop groups. The company had been so notorious for ignoring these organizations and their findings, that even the ever-forgiving Domini Social Investment Fund had dropped Wal-Mart for "unresponsiveness."

"This represents a change in Wal-Mart's behavior," Bob Jeffcott, a policy analyst at MSM says of the retailer's response to the Chong Won situation, "that they are even willing to talk to groups like us. But they need to talk to the local organizations, the workers' representatives. Wal-Mart still doesn't understand that." It's also a good sign, he says, that Wal-Mart is not "cutting and running"--simply dropping the factory and leaving all the workers without jobs, as it would have done in the past. What's still unclear is whether the company will intervene on the workers' behalf.

No one is suggesting that Wal-Mart ordered--or is in any way directly responsible for--Bishop Romano's murder, but like so many multinationals globally, the retailer clearly hasn't taken any decisive action to stop the violence and intimidation that fattens its own profit margins. For that, this company--so widely perceived by many US consumers and workers as a "Christian company"--has a lot of explaining to do. Wal-Mart should be asked to use its own substantial influence, not to further bully the workers, but to force the factory to bargain fairly.

Like all US companies operating in Free Trade Zones, Wal-Mart should stop the brutal economic pressure that lies at the root of political violence against workers and their advocates. The root of the trouble, says Jeffcott, is "the pricing question – Is Wal-Mart willing to pay a price that allows a factory to pay a living wage?"

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