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National NOW Times >> Fall 2003 >> Article

Wal-Mart Commercials Turn Workers' Frowns Upside Down

Employees Told How to Get Public Assistance While Company Makes Billions

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

Wal-Mart ALWAYS Discriminates
Have you seen the latest TV commercials from Wal-Mart? Not the ads where the swashbuckling smiley face slashes prices, but the ones where women employees extol the virtues of working for the retail giant. These ads are not trying to sell products; they are peddling warm feelings about the company itself, which is under assault from NOW and others for its mistreatment of employees. Could it be that the world's largest corporation is concerned about its corporate image? Is word finally getting out that greed and discrimination go right along with every day low prices?

In the summer of 2002, NOW's Women Friendly Workplace campaign named Wal-Mart a Merchant of Shame in response to the company's well-documented unfair labor practices. Wal-Mart has been charged in what could be the largest employment discrimination lawsuit in history, a case currently awaiting class action certification in a San Francisco court. The suit asserts that Wal-Mart discriminates against female employees in wages, promotions and training, despite the fact that women demonstrate stronger performance and longevity in all positions in the company.

In June 2003 NOW stepped up its campaign to bring economic justice to Wal-Mart workers. NOW chapters across the country are "adopting" local Wal-Mart stores. Wearing buttons that proclaim "Wal-Mart Always Discriminates," activists hand out information at the stores in an effort to educate consumers about the reality behind those famously low prices.

"Wal-Mart may have the lowest prices in town, but who pays for those low prices? How did the company net $8 billion in profits last year with such cut rates?" asks NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives. "The answer is women. Women hold most of the low-paying jobs in Wal-Mart stores. The company's abuse of these women employees, and its failure to provide affordable health care benefits, helps keep costs down."

One thing the new feel-good TV commercials fail to mention is that Wal-Mart is such a great place to work that the company will even help you get on welfare. That's right. If a worker's salary is so meager that they qualify for public assistance, Wal-Mart is right there to show them how to apply. At a July 23 press conference, California Assemblywoman Sally J. Lieber revealed that official Wal-Mart documents showed employees in the state where to go on the internet to apply for assistance.

"This is outrageous," said Vives. "On television Wal-Mart brags that women just love working there, while in its back rooms, the message is, 'we'd rather you go on welfare than pay you another cent of our massive profits.'"

Vives continued: "NOW has long supported public assistance as a way to help women and their families escape poverty. Welfare is not, however, a way for supposedly respectable, profitable businesses to avoid paying their employees decent wages and providing them with affordable health insurance."

According to the trade publication "Chain Store Age," Wal-Mart rates high with consumers based on "honesty, respect, dignity, trust, consistency and fairness." People who shop at Wal-Mart need to know the reality behind the company's public image. They need to know that the woman helping them find an item or ringing up their order might be living in poverty. She may be on food stamps and without health insurance. She may have been passed over for a promotion in favor of a man with less experience. She may be making less per hour than the man working right next to her.

"In this economy, saving money on groceries, clothes and other essentials can make a big difference in people's lives," said Vives. "But NOW believes that people care about more than saving money—they care about the people of their community who face discrimination at work."

NOW will continue to press Wal-Mart to change its policies and treat its women employees fairly. Until Wal-Mart makes such a commitment, the "adopt a store" campaign will bring to consumers the kind of information that matters to them when choosing where to shop.

It's interesting to note that Wal-Mart has not responded to any of NOW's calls for it to clean up its act, but the company did send a letter to inform the organization that repeated attempts by chapter activists to hand out materials in the stores will result in them being thrown out and possibly arrested.

Wal-Mart understands the importance of its image, but its executives would rather spend money to air slick television commercials telling people their stores are a happy place to work than spend money to institute the real changes that would make it so.

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