Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers took to the streets earlier this week after the multi-story Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka burnt down, killing 112 people who were prevented from escaping by locked doors. The factory made clothes for Walmart, along with other U.S. brands, but the company denied any responsibility. The protesters are demanding that they pay compensation.
According to Democracy Now, “Survivors said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work, and that when the fire alarm went off, their bosses ordered them to stay at their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits or fire escapes.”
Walmart’s role in this tragedy is that by ordering huge quantities of clothes on a just-in-time schedule while systematically reducing the prices they pay for them, it forces garment manufacturers to subcontract to sweatshops and cut corners on safety. Walmart’s drive to squeeze out labor costs from the supply chain makes it inevitable that subcontractors will abuse and endanger their workers.
But since this process takes place through contract negotiations with middlemen, Walmart can claim ignorance or non-responsibility, since they are distanced from the slave-like labor conditions by a series of financial exchanges – which, as Marx pointed out, conceal the embedded relations of exploitation. It is this hands-off property of capital that is important to the way Walmart operates.
The Bangladeshi government is dominated by garment manufacturers, part of a billion-dollar industry that has captured the state, which intimidates and murders union activists. Complicit in this arrangement are global brands that buy commodities from the country based on the rock-bottom cost of labor. In Alternet, Adele Stan pointed out: “the Western companies essentially sponsor a factory police state that exists to satisfy the insatiable appetite of Western consumers for new stuff at a low price. … Bangladeshi garment workers typically earn around $50 per month on average; the minimum wage [set by the government] is $37 per month.”
Worker rights activist Scott Nova told Democracy Now: “One of the purposes of the system of global outsourcing is to enable companies like Wal-Mart to distance themselves from responsibility for the wages and working conditions of the workers who make their clothing. … Both Wal-Mart and Gap, who are two of the biggest players in Bangladesh, have been urged for years to put in place meaningful fire safety protections in their supply chain after a similar fire in late 2010 that killed 30 workers in a factory producing primarily for Gap.”
Harold Meyerson elaborates in the Washington Post: “… the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work. This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements.”
Such a pyramidal arrangement of subcontractors who hire the “temporary” workers to operate Walmart’s warehouses means that the company is legally absolved from the wage theft and other labor abuses that constantly take place in these cavernous distribution centers.
Walmart is focused on increasing the amount of absolute surplus value extracted from the movement of vast quantities of commodities through their stores, through increasing the proportion of unpaid labor worked by their employees. By contrast, Henry Ford increased his profits by increasing relative surplus value, using more advanced manufacturing technology and a more efficient organization of the production process. Walmart’s retail workers are disciplined by using the cult of the “Walmart family” to put psychological pressure on them, backed up by the threat of unemployment and management retaliation.
Ellen Israel Rosen draws the conclusion that “Wal-Mart cuts its labor costs by requiring excessive amounts of work, then making employees work off the clock if they cannot finish in time. … To secure their compliance, Wal-Mart culture is brought to bear. The culture is an effort to ‘educate’ employees to be loyal to the company, to identify with authority, and to accept the demands of an authoritarian regime, a form of management by intimidation. Getting workers to accept this authority makes it possible to manipulate work rules, with employees expected to feel it is legitimate to do the extra work.” [in Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, ed. Nelson Lichtenstein, New York, 2006:258]
Walmart has in fact wedded an agrarian and patriarchal form of labor management with modern business practices with the result of intensifying the rate of exploitation to extreme levels. Its aggressive anti-unionism is part of its ideological assult, designed to exert total control over a worker’s time and social interaction on the job. In the days before the Black Friday strikes last week, managers held meetings in every store where employees were told that the actions would hurt sales and cut into their bonuses, and strongly implied that anyone who took part would be disciplined or fired.
In The Nation, Josh Eidelson blogged: “Walmart’s tactics over the past week may have taken a toll: organizers said that 100 DC-area Walmart store workers struck this week, but maybe no more than a dozen on Black Friday itself (they chalked this up to workers’ desire to cause more disruption earlier in the week while products were still being unloaded).”
But the tide has turned. The lessons of Black Friday are that those courageous low-waged workers who successfully stood up to intimidation and threats from Walmart have encouraged a movement of resistance throughout the company. It looks like many of Walmart’s workers were waiting to see what would happen before they themselves took a stand. In These Times reported: “Rosetta Brown, an OUR Walmart member at a suburban Chicago Sam’s Club, has been fighting Walmart for the 12 years she has worked for the company, and on Friday she was out on strike. Although she has organized at least 10 co-workers into OUR Walmart, she says most of the workers at her store said they were afraid to go out. But when she returned to work today, she was their hero. ‘I’ve been getting congratulations all day, even in front of the manager,’ says Brown. … ‘People have been high-fiving me. I wasn’t afraid of getting fired. Now I think a lot of workers in stores who were afraid would walk out.”
Walmart workers are joining a national movement of low-paid employees who are taking action against their conditions. Alternet reported that Thursday “hundreds of fast food restaurant workers are striking in high-traffic commercial centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The strikes, which began at 6 am this morning and will continue throughout the day, will hit some of the world’s biggest fast food chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Dominos, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, and carry an industry-shaking demand: the right to unionize and wage increases to $15 an hour. … thousands of low-wage airport workers in Los Angeles also went on strike last week , disrupting the busiest travel day of the year to protest the termination of their union contracts and the elimination of their family healthcare insurance.”
This in turn will align them with workers in China and Bangladesh who are fighting for the most elementary of rights against multinational capital.