Wal-Mart claims advancement in Ethical Standards Program; Events in the Phillipines Prove Otherwise

Workers at a garment
factory in the Philippines would likely be amazed to learn that the
“enhancements” Wal-Mart made to its Ethical Standards program include a
formal recognition of the right to join trade unions and bargain
collectively.  Chong Won Fashions, Inc. is located in the Cavite Export
Processing Zone, a special economic region established by the
government where already weak Filipino labor laws are watered down even
further.  Wal-Mart is currently Chong Won’s primary customer, and a
violent labor crisis that erupted at the factory last month illustrates
the total irrelevance of the retail giant’s newfound “respect” for
union rights.

Employees at Chong Won tried for years to form an independent union to
press for better wages and working conditions, with factory managers
fighting them at every turn.  Even after workers voted to form the
United Workers of Chong Won (known by its Tagalog initials NMCW) in
2004, management has refused to recognize the union or negotiate a
collective bargaining agreement.  In September, when the union
threatened to strike in protest, the company turned to intimidation and
brute force to keep the factory union-free.

According to the Workers’ Assistance Center (WAC), a Filipino NGO
monitoring the situation, Chong Won security guards first attempted to
break up the union’s tent shelter by force, sending several union
members to the hospital.  A Wal-Mart factory auditor attended a
subsequent meeting between the union and factory management, but
refused to pressure management to negotiate or call off the security
forces.  To the contrary, Wal-Mart’s representative deemed the union
picket line illegal, implicitly justifying the violent behavior of the
security forces.

After the union formally declared a strike on September 25th, the
situation deteriorated even further.  Police and security guards twice
attacked the picket line with clubs and riot shields, then set up a
blockade to keep the strikers from obtaining food and water.  Three
days later, police detained eight workers for attempting to bring food
to the picket line.  As of this writing, these 8 workers remain in
police custody and have not been charged.  Maybe they should use their
one phone call to dial Wal-Mart’s Global Ethics Helpline; according to
the Report on Ethical Sourcing, “every complaint [Wal-Mart receives]
via that helpline is investigated immediately and is subject to
corrective action.”

Wal-Mart’s 2005 Report bafflingly categorizes abuses of union rights as
“hidden violations.”  In the company’s own words, “it is easy to
observe whether a factory has the correct number of fire extinguishers
or toilets…[I]t is harder to uncover whether factory management is
respecting workers’ right to Freedom of Association…”  Be that as it
may, reports of security forces beating union workers suggest that
something may be amiss.  The crisis at Chong Won is anything but
hidden, and Wal-Mart would do well to use its considerable power as the
factory’s chief buyer to bring this crisis to a swift and satisfactory

This is not the first time Wal-Mart has faced criticism for its labor
practices overseas.  In 2005, the Washington, DC advocacy group
International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of
Wal-Mart workers from four different continents, alleging widespread
labor rights violations throughout the company’s global supply chain.
Trina Tocco, ILRF’s Campaign’s Coordinator, has harsh words for
Wal-Mart’s recent report: “In light of the situation at Chong Won
Fashions, it’s ironic that Wal-Mart says it wants to change its
auditing program ‘from a policing approach to a coaching approach.’ The
company doesn’t get involved when the police are beating and jailing
workers, and they’re not coaching management to resolve the situation
peacefully.”  ILRF calls on Wal-Mart to keep production at the factory
and to facilitate negotiations between Chong Won management and the
striking workers.