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Working In These Times

Thursday, Sep 20, 2012, 5:00 pm

Wal-Mart Holds Secretive ‘Workerwashing’ Meeting in DC with Labor Advocates

BY Mike Elk

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WASHINGTON, DC --On Wednesday, Wal-Mart, the temp work agency Manpower and the anti-human-trafficking nonprofit Katie Ford Foundation held a closed-door meeting with labor-friendly groups, including Farmworker Justice, the United Farm Workers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The topic of the meeting was "ethical sourcing." Also in attendance were key Congressional staffers and officials from the Department of Labor and the State Department’s anti-human-trafficking division, according to an event invitation obtained by In These Times.

Reporters were banned and the attendees were sent a set of “Chatham House Rules" barring them from discussing what was talked about in the meeting. "Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed," read the invitation. "Press will not be present in the room and we do appreciate all participants respecting the above if asked about the meeting by media before or after the event."

The meeting comes in the wake of massive PR damage suffered by Wal-Mart after workers at one of its suppliers, CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, went out on strike in June to protest being allegedly forced to work 24-hour shifts.

Stephen Boykewich, communications director for the National Guestworker Alliance, which coordinated the CJ's strike, says that the press over the strike was so bad that Wal-Mart had to set up a "war room" to handle it.

“Once the [New York] Times started covering it ... they started getting calls from people like [Sen.] Mary Landrieu [D-La.], who was giving them a hard time," he says. "She was under pressure because she voted the wrong way [on a previous vote to defund Obama-issued rules protecting H-2b guestworkers].“

Boykewich believes that the purpose of the DC event was to create the appearance of ethics without having to deal directly with supply-chain workers. “With this kind of event, [Wal-Mart executives] are trying to create this kind of halo of seriousness about ethical sourcing. They have done this again and again: They did this during the bribery scandal, they did this in the case of CJ's, and they are doing it with the striking [warehouse] workers now. There is nothing scarier to Wal-Mart than the prospect of actually having to negotiate directly with workers up and down the supply chain."

Labor advocates say that the Wal-Mart event was designed to create the appearance of being pro-worker when the reality is anything but. This practice is known as "workerwashing," a play on "greenwashing."

Two workers employed by Wal-Mart contractors attend the event. One was Javier Rodriguez, a warehouse worker in Southern California who is among a group of 50 union members currently on strike there. Also present was Mexican H-2B guestworker Ana Rosa Diaz, who was involved in the CJ's strike

The workers met with Wal-Mart Vice President for Ethical Sourcing, Rajan Kamalanathan. Both said that Kamalanathan seemed genuinely concerned about their working conditions.

“We asked for respect and dignity. We asked the Wal-Mart vice president directly to be responsible for us. He said he wasn’t aware of the strike in Los Angeles. His face showed it, and you could tell that he was frustrated,” says warehouse worker Javier Rodriquez.

Afterwards, Kamalanathan posed for photos with both of the workers employed by Wal-Mart’s subcontractors. However, a PR representative of Wal-Mart informed Saket Soni of the National Guestworker Alliance that they had to delete the photo from their phones.

Wal-Mart did not respond to In These Times request for comment on why the event was conducted under a press blackout and why they asked that a photo of a top Wal-Mart executive posing with workers be deleted.

In an email statement to Huffington Post labor reporter Dave Jamieson, who also reported on the event, Wal-Mart spokesperson Lorenzo Lopez wrote

"Walmart is committed to strong ethical sourcing standards for suppliers and we have worked diligently to help ensure the products we sell are produced in a way that provides dignity and respect for workers in our supply chain. As part of this commitment, we are looking to develop a program for suppliers that will include education, training and resources to help ensure compliance with our standards."

Soni of the National Guestworker Alliance takes issue with Wal-Mart's implicit claim that poor working conditions are the result of supplier neglect. He says the real fault lies with Wal-Mart.

“We don’t think CJs Seafood happened because of a racist seafood farmer in Louisiana," says Soni. "Mike Leblanc, who these workers came to work for, did mistreat these workers, but he is not the 1%. He is trapped in a set of supply chain incentives in a cage that he cannot get out of. The guy who owns the warehouse that Javier works at is not the 1%."

“These people are exploiting the subcontracted and supply chain workers,” Soni continued, pointing to the room where the Wal-Mart-sponsored conference was held. “What we have in that room, in the vice president of Wal-Mart, is an extremely well-heeled, well-educated, well-read and well-staffed gentleman who is up to the task of fixing the problems of the supply chain."

Workers say that if Wal-Mart doesn’t listen, that they are prepared to take more actions like the strikes carried out by warehouse workers this week in Riverside, Calif., and Joliet, Ill.

“It’s going to increase. The first thing that we are trying to get rid of here is fear,” says Southern California Warehouse worker Rodriguez. “The fear to talk, the fear to demand your rights. This is what we have clearly demonstrated to a lot of folks. This is going to increase as we keep fighting for worker’s rights and it won’t end until there is a solution to the situation."

When asked how long she was willing to stay in the United States to fight for justice for guest workers, Diaz, a worker from Mexico employed by CJ's on an H-2b visa, told In These Times, “I am here now not because I plan to be here, but because of necessity. I am going to be here until this fight no longer requires me."

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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