Sunday, February 08, 2004

Wal-Mart Nation World

This makes you stop and think:
As capital scours the globe for cheaper and more malleable workers, and as poor countries seek multinational companies to provide jobs, lift production and open export markets, Wal-Mart and China have forged themselves into the ultimate joint venture, their symbiosis influencing the terms of labor and consumption the world over.

With sales of more than $245 billion a year, Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the United States, still the ultimate consumer market. China is the most populous country, with 1.3 billion people, most still poor enough to willingly move hundreds of miles from home for jobs that would be shunned by anyone with better prospects. The Communist Party government has become perhaps the world's greatest facilitator of capitalist production, beckoning multinational giants with tax-free zones and harsh punishment for anyone with designs on organizing a labor movement.

More than 80 percent of the 6,000 factories in Wal-Mart's worldwide database of suppliers are in China. Wal-Mart estimates it spent $15 billion on Chinese-made products last year, accounting for nearly one-eighth of all Chinese exports to the United States. If the company that Sam Walton built with his "Made in America" ad campaign were itself a separate nation, it would rank as China's fifth-largest export market, ahead of Germany and Britain.
So why are we bothering negotiating "free" or "fair" trade agreements with other counties when we could just travel to Arkansas and negotiate with Wal-Mart?

And what's so attractive about China?
For Wal-Mart and other multinational companies doing business in China, a stable currency, political peace and a compliant workforce are nearly as important as low costs.

"There might be places in other parts of the world where you can buy cheaper, but can you get [the product] on the ship?" Tsuei said. "If we have to look at a country that's not politically stable, you might not get your order on time. If you deal in a country where the currency fluctuates, everyday there is a lot of risk. China happens to have the right mix."

Labor activists in China and abroad say that mix includes the ruling party's ban on independent trade unions -- workers may join only the party-run union -- as well as courts and regulatory agencies controlled by local party officials who are often willing to overlook labor violations to appease businesses that can be milked for taxes, fees and bribes.

The activists argue that as Wal-Mart pits suppliers against one another and squeezes them for the lowest price, the workers suffer.

"Wal-Mart pressures the factory to cut its price, and the factory responds with longer hours or lower pay," said a Chinese labor official, who declined to be named for fear of punishment. "And the workers have no options."
But Wal-Mart audits its suppliers, doesn't it?

Ah yes, but things are often not what they seem....
Wal-Mart portrays itself as a force for good in China. The company says it enforces labor standards for its suppliers and insists that they comply with Chinese law.

"We look at safety. We look at health, and this comes with a cost. We ensure people get paid above minimum wage. They have to have fire extinguishers, fire exits," Tsuei said. "There are people out there who cannot have those things and offer a lower price. We do not do business with those people."

Wal-Mart employs 100 auditors who annually inspect every supplier's factory. Last year, the company suspended deals with about 400 suppliers, primarily for exceeding limits on overtime, Tsuei said. Another 72 factories were blacklisted permanently last year, he said, almost all for employing children under China's legal working age of 16.

But Wal-Mart does not conduct regular inspections of smaller factories that sell goods to the company through middlemen. Nor does it inspect all its suppliers' subcontractors or the Chinese manufacturing operations of U.S. suppliers such as Mattel Inc. and Dell Inc.

"The inspection system is not effective," said Li Qiang, a labor organizer who has been in contact with workers at more than a dozen factories that supply Wal-Mart, and who worked in one himself before leaving China three years ago. "The factories are usually notified in advance, and they often prepare by cleaning up, creating fake time sheets and briefing workers on what to say."

Li said these factories often require employees to work as many as 80 hours per week during the busy season for $75 to $110 per month, violating Chinese labor laws. If Wal-Mart really wanted to monitor conditions among its suppliers, Li said, it could do so with surprise visits, longer inspections and independent auditors. "But if they did that, prices would definitely go up," he said.