Workers in ten countries held solidarity demonstrations on Friday, December 14 calling for an end to Walmart’s attempts to silence workers who speak out for change at the retail giant.
At the beginning of each demonstration, people paused for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in Bangladesh. The fire killed more than 100 workers, injured scores more, and left thousands without jobs.
Tazreen made clothes for Walmart and other retailers in the US and Europe. In 2011, Walmart chose not to help Bangladesh garment manufacturers such as Tazreen upgrade safety in their garment factories because the upgrades would cost too much. The cause of the Tazreen fire is still under investigation but problems with the factory’s electrical system are thought to be the probable cause. The factory also had no fire exits.
In the US, Walmart has pressured its domestic contractors to keep their labor costs low. As a result, workers at contractor-operated Walmart warehouses labor under unsafe working conditions and for sub-standard wages. At least one of these contractors has been found to have committed wage theft and ordered to reimburse workers for lost wages.
When workers at these warehouses have spoken out about their working conditions, they have been threatened and harassed. Some have even been fired. Workers at two Walmart warehouses recently went on strike to protest these conditions.
Walmart associates have faced similar retaliation for speaking out for change. On Black Friday in a coordinated effort Walmart associates across the US walked off the job for a one-day strike against Walmart’s unfair labor practices. The Black Friday strike and other strikes that led up to it were organized by Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR), a nationwide group of Walmart associates.
“We are inspired by OUR Walmart members who are standing up for a better future for all of our families,” said Louisa Plaatjies of South Africa, where a number of solidarity demonstrations took place. “We are will continue to stand up with our brothers and sisters in the United States until Walmart starts listening to the workers that keep the store running.”
In South Africa, workers rallied at Massmart stores throughout the country. Massmart, South Africa’s largest retailer, was recently acquired by Walmart. The South African Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which organized the solidarity demonstrations in that country, opposed the acquisition.
Although it was unable to stop the government from approving the purchase, SACCAWU did win a major court victory that required Massmart to rehire 503 laid off workers whose jobs were eliminated in anticipation of the purchase being approved. Walmart also agreed to recognize SACCAWU as its workers’ union.
In anticipation of Walmart’s entry into the South African retail market, SACCAWU shop stewards met last June in Johannesburg and agreed to establish a network of shop stewards to coordinate a shop floor fight to protect and improve wages, benefits, and working conditions at the stores.
Another solidarity demonstration was held in India, where Walmart is seeking to expand its presence. Members of the Hawkers Federation, a 1.2 million member union of street vendors, demonstrated in cities throughout India.
In addition to supporting Walmart workers in the US, the Indian demonstrations also condemned recent reports that Walmart executives had bribed government officials. Walmart is seeking government permission to open more stores throughout the country.
The government recently announced that a former judge has been appointed to investigate the bribery charges. Several local Walmart executives recently resigned after the bribery scandal came to light.
These bribery allegation have come on top of recent revelations that Walmart bribed government officials in Mexico and China.
During the day of solidarity demonstrations, more than 1,000 demonstrations took place worldwide. In addition to the US, South Africa, and India, demonstrations took place in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Nicaragua, the UK, and Zambia.
“The Walmart workers may come from different cultures and continents but they are united in their opposition to Walmart’s cynical and systematic squeezing of its employees to maximize profit, be it the US dollar, the South African rand, the Indian rupee, the Argentine peso or any other currency,” said Philip Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union, an international confederation of service sector unions that coordinated the solidarity demonstrations.
“We will not be silenced,” said Jesus Vargas, a Walmart associate fired for speaking out for change at his store in California. “We are coming together to be heard and to create good jobs that workers in America and across the globe need.”