On Wal-Mart and God’s Provision

I posted the following “note” on Facebook today, in response to one of my Facebook “friends” who had the following as their status message: “…got some great deals today at a Wal-Mart store that is closing! So excited about what God provided today!”

My response follows:

With all due respect, I’m not so confident as you regarding God’s provision in this matter. There is so much that might be said in response to this, but I’ll try to stick to a few points. Of course, the first thing that might be said has to do of course with Wal-Mart itself. As the largest retailer in the world and United States’ largest employer, WM has an enormous impact on the lives of ordinary folks in this country and around the world. WM has a documented history of worker oppression, including the following:

  • WM forces employees to work off the clock:

In Pennsylvania, the lead plaintiff alleges she worked through breaks and after quitting time — eight to 12 unpaid hours a month, on average — to meet Wal-Mart’s work demands. “One of Wal-Mart’s undisclosed secrets for its profitability is its creation and implementation of a system that encourages off-the-clock work for its hourly employees,” Dolores Hummel, who worked at a Sam’s Club in Reading from 1992-2002, charged in her suit. [Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 12, 2006 ]

  • WM refuses to pay employees a living wage:

The average two-person family (one parent and one child) needed $27,948 to meet basic needs in 2005, well above what Wal-Mart reports that its average full-time associate earns. Wal-Mart claimed that its average associate earned $9.68 an hour in 2005. That would make the average associate’s annual wages $17,114. [“Basic Family Budget Calculator” online at www.epinet.org]

  • WM refuses to give employees decent benefits, like adequate health care:

The average full-time employee electing for family coverage would have to spend between 22 and 40 percent of his or her income just to cover the premiums and medical deductibles. These costs do not include other health-related expenses such as medical co-pays, prescription coverage, emergency room deductibles, and ambulance deductibles. [Wal-Mart 2006 Associate Guide and UFCW Analysis].

I can actually speak from personal knowledge regarding this last bit, as my niece, a 33 year old single mother of two and Wal-Mart employee, found WM’s health care plan so expensive and restrictive that she finally was forced to drop her coverage, leaving her twin special-needs boys without insurance! 

Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the impact on a community when WM comes into town, as I think it’s record of destroying local businesses is probably well-documented, but here’s just one example:

Over the course of [a few years after Wal-Mart entered a community], retailers’ sales of apparel dropped 28% on average, hardware sales fell by 20%, and sales of specialty stores fell by 17%. [Kenneth Stone at Iowa State University, “Impact of the Wal-Mart Phenomenon on Rural Communities,” 1997]

Speaking of local businesses, where do you think WM gets all those products it can sell so cheaply? Buying most of them in the U.S. would simply be too expensive; so they’re bought from whatever supplier around the world can meet their price demands, which usually means the clothes, household products, and other goods you buy at WM are made by the “poorest of the poor” around the world, with a large percentage of WM’s products actually coming from China. Wanna know more about these workers? Here are a few vignettes:

A female apparel worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, said she was locked into the factory and did not have a day off in her first six months. She said she was told if she refused to work the required overtime, she would be fired. Another worker said her supervisor attacked her “by slapping her face so hard that her nose began bleeding simply because she was unable to meet” her “high quota.” [New York Times, September 14, 2005]–

 Workers making toys for Wal-Mart in China’s Guangdong Province reported that they would have to meet a quota of painting 8,900 toy pieces in an eight hour shift in order to earn the stated wage of $3.45 a day. If they failed to meet that quota, the factory would only pay them $1.23 for a day’s work. [China Labor Watch, December 21, 2005]

 A former Wal-Mart executive James Lynn has sued the company claiming he was fired because he warned the company that an inspection manager was intimidating underlings into passing Central American suppliers. Lynn documented forced pregnancy tests, 24-hour work shifts, extreme heat, pat-down searches, locked exits, and other violations of the labor laws of these Central American countries. [New York Times, July 1, 2005 and James Lynn to Odair Violim, April 28, 2002, www.nclnet.org]

Of course, then there’s the impact of WM on the environment (you know, God’s creation):

In 2005, Wal-Mart reached a $1.15 million settlement with the State of Connecticut for allowing improperly stored pesticides and other pollutants to pollute streams. This was the largest such settlement in state history. [Hartford Courant, 8/16/05]

 In May 2004, Wal-Mart agreed to pay the largest settlement for stormwater violations in EPA history. The United States sued Wal-mart for violating the Clean Water Act in 9 states, calling for penalties of over $3.1 million and changes to Wal-Mart’s building practices. [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 12, 2004, U.S. v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 2004 WL 2370700]

I could go on and on, but there is a wealth of research available online regarding the evils of WM, including here: http://www.wakeupwalmart.com/facts/#community
Having said of all of that, though, of course this is a very complicated matter. Would the world be better without WM? I would argue yes, and I’m confident that at the very least God’s will would be much, much closer to actually being done on earth. In the meantime, WM does at least provide (meager) employment to folks like my niece, who otherwise would have few job prospects in this tough economy, and it does provide cheap goods to bargain-hunting USAmericans who are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table these days, despite their status across all USAmerican income levels as the wealthiest of the world’s citizens, all of which brings me back to your status message. Let’s just set all of the above aside and, at least in regard to the above, let’s ignore the question of whether or not God had anything to do with all of the evil perpetrated by WM in the name of bringing you low prices. In your status message you seemed to be rejoicing at God’s “provision” regarding the good deals you found at that WM that was closing. Of course, if that store is closing, chances are that all the people who depend on it for their below-poverty-line wages will now have no wages whatsoever, which leads me to the great hope that God had little to do with your bargain finds. If He did, He’s not a God that I’m much interested in serving.

So hey, I’m glad you got a good deal, but please don’t blame it on God.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

So I haven’t blogged much lately- okay, at all. While I know there are a variety of reasons for this, as always, it comes down to feeling a bit down as of late. I know this has something to do with some typical avoidance on my part, as I’m now late as usual in writing our yearly Christmas letter and doing the customary introspection that goes with it. I’m afraid that when I reflect on 2008 I’ll find that not much has changed since 2007- that I’ve grown little, accomplished even less, and contributed next to nothing that might be considered good or new. Perhaps I’m too eager in my “search for significance,” or perhaps not eager enough. Time will tell, I guess. All I know now is that I’m afraid of hearing what it has to say.