The signs all over the store proclaiming Everyday Low Prices look the same (except that they’re printed in Chinese), as do the neatly dressed “associates” patrolling the selling floor. Busy shoppers plucking bargains ranging from music CDs to shoes to fresh bean curd have the same determined look about them. And one other thing about Wal-Mart in China is familiar, too: The company’s labor problems are making headlines.
To be sure, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which has launched a public relations campaign against Wal-Mart over the firm’s refusal to let its Chinese workers unionize, does not much resemble unions in the United States (where Wal-Mart is the target of almost forty lawsuits alleging forced overtime without pay; a class-action lawsuit claiming gender discrimination; and, most recently, charges by federal prosecutors that the company has violated immigration laws by hiring undocumented workers). It is, rat
her, a virtual extension of the Communist Party and the government, and the fight with the antiunion Wal-Mart does as much to showcase the labor group’s own shortcomings as those of the corporation.
The labor federation is threatening to sue Wal-Mart unless the US company agrees to establish unions in its stores. Wal-Mart, for its part, maintains that officials in the central government have assured the company that it’s not required to do so. Which seems a bit odd, because Article 10 of China’s Trade Union Law clearly states that a union “shall be set up” in any enterprise with twenty-five or more workers. The explanation for the apparent contradiction may be that the government’s desire for foreign investment and jobs trumps any concern for workers’ rights. That wouldn’t be surprising in the Chinese environment, where strikes are forbidden and the official labor grouping actively supports the government’s efforts to block the rise of independent unions.
Wal-Mart currently has thirty-one outlets in fifteen Chinese cities, with 16,000 employees. A company spokesman declined to give sales figures, but published reports have put Wal-Mart’s total revenues in China at just under $1 billion. Shoppers at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Changsha are doing their best to raise that number. Corporate affairs manager Jiang Lichun says the store–which opened in June–is doing better than the roughly $60,000 a day originally projected. Wal-Mart has earned considerable notoriety in the United States and elsewhere by paying its workers rock-bottom wages. It’s clear the company has adopted the same approach in China. Jiang won’t give a figure for what the company pays in Changsha or other cities but says it’s a “competitive” rate that’s enough to “guarantee the workers’ basic existence.”