Sunday, January 18, 2004
Cry yourself a river, but it don't take much to drown
That's a quote from this documentary on the Wal-Mart versus Women website.
It probably goes too far to allege back room shenanigans at corporate headquarters in Bentonville. Paying the lowest wages possible buys you a workforce comprised of people in precarious financial straits, and that's a population which includes a disproportionate number of single mothers. But whether planned or not, the fact is that Wal-Mart has achieved a workforce willing to put up with treatment bordering on abuse.
Consider, for example, this story from Sunday's New York Times. The article takes a look at Wal-Mart's practice of locking in employees during the graveyard shift at some stores.
The policy is long standing, though Wal-Mart has reformed since the late eighties, when "the fire doors of some Wal-Marts were chained shut." Employees are still routinely told that they'll lose their job if they leave through the fire exit when there's not a fire. Some employees have even been lied to by managers who claimed that, "fire doors could not be physically opened by the workers and that the doors would open automatically when the fire alarm was triggered."
The Times reports of several workers who were injured on the job but were unable to leave to get medical attention, including one woman who, "cut her finger badly with a box cutter but dared not go out the fire exit — waiting until morning to get 13 stitches at a hospital." In other cases, employees who became ill were unable to leave. As when "a stocker was deathly sick, throwing up repeatedly. [Another employee] said he called the store manager at home and told him, `You need to come let this person out.' He said: `Find one of the mattresses. Have him lay down on the floor.'"
The policy affects employees in a number of other ways. In order to avoid paying over-time, Wal-Mart doesn't allow employees to work over 40 hours a week. But the Times reports that at one store, "on many workers' fifth work day of the week, they would approach the 40-hour mark and then clock out, usually around 1 a.m. They would then have to sit around, napping, playing cards or watching television, until a manager arrived at 6 a.m."
What is Wal-Mart's explanation for these practices? They claim to be looking out for their employees. Stores are only locked, they say, in high crime areas. This explanation is weak on its face, since keeping bad guys locked out doesn't require that employees be locked in.
In any case, the corporate line is disputed by former employees and managers, who indicate that Wal-Mart is really trying to protect itself from its own employees. According to these sources, the practice is intended to prevent employee theft and to increase efficiency by preventing workers from being able to, "sneak outside to smoke a cigarette, get high or make a quick trip home."
The plain fact is that locking the doors is the cheapest solution to Wal-Mart's employee management problem. Better paid workers would be less likely to steal and would be more likely to take pride in their work. Failing that, adequate supervision could keep employees in line. But it's cheaper to lock them in. And since Wal-Mart employees need their jobs more than they need respect, they put up with the policy.
What we have here are legitimate business purposes combined with a faultless cost/benefit analysis, resulting in the most efficient policy possible. Wal-Mart's motives are not charitable, but neither are they objectionable according the economic faith professed by most Americans.
So why does Wal-Mart lie? The answer is that the truth doesn't sit well with Wal-Mart's image as middle America's discount supersavior. As Charles Fishman puts it, ever cheaper prices have consequences. Wal-Mart lies because it would be bad for business to let the low income shoppers it depends on realize that the chain is engaged in asymmetrical warfare against them.