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

Mike Elk

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 wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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