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Op-ed: Walmart's Lousy Worker Policies Extend from Shelves to Sea

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Randy Parraz and Jackie Dragon 

Walmart has a labor problem and must address it immediately. This statement alone might not shock most people, but the extent of Walmart’s labor issues continues to reveal itself. For years, workers have fought for a living wage, reasonable health accommodations, and the respect and dignity that all employees deserve. The company continues to fail to provide these basic necessities of life. But it’s not just the workers in Walmart stores who may face this irresponsible neglect from the company; workers throughout Walmart’s canned tuna supply chain are susceptible to horrific labor abuse, inadequate wages, and violence.

Following the circus in Fayetteville, AR that is Walmart’s Annual General Meeting, it is time for the company to take ownership of its labor problem. Walmart has mastered the ability to use shiny PR moves to distract from its deep-seated issues, but unions, environmental organizations, and activists are uniting to ensure the truth is revealed this year. Whether at sea, in factories, or in its stores, Walmart must commit to the changes that are needed to protect and respect workers that bring products to consumers around the globe.

Walmart, with an annual revenue of close to half a trillion dollars, has seemingly prioritized its profits over its more than 2 million associates’ wellbeings. Some Walmart workers’ wages are so low that they are forced to rely on public assistance for housing, health insurance, or to put food on the table for their families. Many Walmart workers have been fired for what seem like unfair reasons, such as “excessive price-matching” or being accused of attempting to steal toilet paper. Some of these workers are later offered their jobs back, but only at a lower wage than they once had, or with fewer hours.

In a ploy to clean up its image earlier this year, Walmart provided a dollar per hour wage increase for employees. However, since Walmart promised that wage increase, some workers have seen the number of hours they are scheduled to work decrease. The company also decided to close 269 stores worldwide, displace loyal workers, and leave other locations short staffed with workers struggling to get by. The small wage increase was clearly a PR move, not a genuine change in the prioritization of workers’ livelihoods.

It is time for Walmart to commit to a $15 living wage and treat all its workers with respect. It is time for the company to ensure its associates have accommodations for health needs, predictable schedules, and the ability to attend school part-time or arrange stable child care.

Workers throughout Walmart’s tuna supply chain may also face immediate threats that must be addressed by the company. The Great Value and Chicken of the Sea tuna products lining store shelves could very well have been produced with modern-day slave labor using fishing methods that are destroying our oceans. Walmart gets Great Value tuna from Thai Union Group, the largest tuna company in the world and owner of Chicken of the Sea. Thai Union is notorious for ocean destruction and has been connected to horrendous abuse of seafood industry workers.

Investigations by the Associated Press, New York Times, Greenpeace and others have exposed inhumane conditions on fishing vessels within Thai Union’s seafood supply chains. In some cases crews have been trapped at sea for months and even years, forced to work eighteen hour shifts seven days a week, deprived of toilets and clean drinking water, beaten for making mistakes or falling asleep, and worse.

To protect industry workers, Walmart must take a firm stand against any seafood caught by workers who are abused at sea or in factories. Unless significant changes are made by Thai Union, that means rejecting the seafood giant’s destructive and unethical canned tuna completely. For years, Walmart has used greenwashing and insufficient policy statements to avoid taking responsibility for the destructive tuna it sells. As the largest retailer in the world, Walmart has a responsibility to offer its millions of customers more responsibly-caught canned tuna.

Walmart and Thai Union are massive multinational companies. When these dominant market forces act responsibly and embrace solutions to ensure a seafood supply free from forced labor and destructive fishing that kills thousands of sharks, sea turtles, and other species, the entire industry will change. The same can be said for Walmart’s ability to transform the retail industry for workers in other stores throughout the United States. A commitment to move beyond empty  PR moves and truly treat workers with respect by providing a living wage and dignified working conditions will have far reaching impacts.

Walmart has avoided responsibility for labor conditions both in its stores and throughout its supply chains for far too long. Shareholders should hold the company accountable. Far too many lives, and the future of our oceans, depend on it.

Randy Parraz is the Campaign Director for Making Change at Walmart, UFCW’s national campaign to change Walmart into a more responsible employer.

Jackie Dragon is a Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace campaigning to reform the social and environmental practices of the global tuna industry.

Image credit: Greenpeace/Robert Meyers

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