As Walmart shareholders gathered in Bentonville, Arkansas, to hail the global retail giant’s expansion across global markets, angry workers assembled outside, in a perennial protest against Walmart’s low wages and harsh working conditions. But the workers who take the brunt of the company’s notoriously exploitative labor practices can’t be any further from Arkansas; they’re likely huddled over a sewing machine in Java—and, aside from the label they stitch every few seconds, they may barely know they’re working for Walmart at all.
The blindness to those workers’ labor struggles is driving an international movement to rein in global companies and protect human rights from the assembly line to the clothing rack. “We are really talking about unaccountable lead firms who basically, through the power of their finance, hold the countries and the world hostage to their greed and profit,” says Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator with the labor-advocacy group Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA).
A world away from Bentonville, AFWA is helping workers on the far side of the production chain get some recognition in Geneva at an International Labour Organization conference. They are presenting a scathing analysis of how Walmart, Gap, H&M, and other Western brands systematically degrade workers’ rights in poor countries, often contravening their own supplier “codes of conduct.”
According to the latest report on Walmart, drawn from field research and interviews with more than 340 factory workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India, an under-regulated system of hyper-exploitation in subcontracted factories underwrites the real price tag behind Walmart’s brand label.
In India, researchers found that all 24 Walmart supplier factories investigated relied on irregular workforces of “short-term contract workers, daily wage workers and workers who work on piece-rate.” This casualization enables maximal “flexibility,” allowing bosses to calibrate wages according to the fluxes of the Western consumer market and the constant churn of fashion seasons. For workers, chronic economic destabilization becomes a constant of life, punctuated by bouts of joblessness, lack of social protections, sexual and physical abuse, and, without strong unions, “potential for retaliatory termination” for any form of workplace organizing.
Chronic abuse begets chronic maladies: “respiratory illnesses—including silicosis from sand blasting, tuberculosis, ergonomic issues such as back pain, reproductive health issues…and mental health problems including depression and anxiety.” One government survey found that “80 percent of all tuberculosis cases registered in 2009 were from garment workers.” Yet Walmart, which, officially at least, only subcontracts with these factories, can keep its books clean of the enormous public-health debts it has accrued in workers’ bodies.