Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, employing more than 1.5 million people worldwide. But, it has often been criticized for the way it treats those workers. Wal-Mart built its business by offering everyday low prices. It's a winning strategy. However, one of the ways the company has kept prices low is by paying its workers up to 20% less than other large retailers, and forbidding its employees to unionize.
There is not a single union in the more than 3,000 Wal-Mart stores in the United States. "They have a practice and a habit of intimidating anybody who even talks about getting a union," says Stewart Acuff, an official at America's largest labor organization, AFL-CIO. "The one place where workers voted in a union at Wal-Mart was in Jacksonville, Texas, in a meat department, and their (the company's) response to that vote was to do away with all meat departments in all their stores."
The company initially banned unions in its 1,300 overseas stores. But a few Wal-Marts in Canada have successfully unionized in recent years. And late in 2004, the company agreed to establish officially sanctioned unions in its 40 Chinese stores - provided the workers request that the company form one.
What has garnered the most attention, though, are the number of complaints about Wal-Mart's treatment of its employees. AFL-CIO's Stewart Acuff says he's heard hundreds of grievances. "Women have come and complained about discrimination, which they eventually filed a lawsuit on," he says, adding, "People have come and complained about working off the clock. People have come and complained about low wages, no benefits, no health care."
How does the company respond? Gus Whitcomb, director of Public Relations for Wal-Mart, says that some complaints lead to positive results. "A lot of people have things they bring to our attention, either through litigation or through just information purposes that they share with us," he says. "We always take a look at all criticism to see if it's valid. If it is, we use it as an opportunity to make improvements to the way we do business. However, there are lots of people out there who have agendas of their own that aren't necessarily geared towards the best interests of Wal-Mart. These can be special interest groups, unions and others. And when those folks criticize us, we take a look at it and - understanding that for the most part they have their own agenda - we go ahead and work toward helping our customers and associates on our own."
Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Wal-Mart, charging, among other things, refusal to pay overtime, employing illegal aliens, and discriminating against women and people with disabilities. A class action lawsuit that covers about 1.5 million current and former female employees is the largest workplace-bias lawsuit in U.S. history. And in March, the company agreed to pay an $11 million dollar settlement to the government for employing illegal aliens in some of its stores.
Wal-Mart is aware of the potential damage these lawsuits do to its public image. So, the company has established a taskforce to improve its reputation, introduced new personnel procedures, created an office of diversity, and launched a public-relations and advertising campaign that features its exemplary employees.
Analysts say that these moves show that the world's largest retailer is concerned about its image and its future … and is preparing to continue its phenomenal growth around the globe.
This report was based on reports and interviews originally done by Ruosi Wu of VOA's Mandarin Language Service.