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2007-07-23
Buenos Aires, Argentina. Wal-Mart Charged With Anti-Union Persecution

"Our people make the difference," Wal-Mart says. But a story different than the Mr. Smiley TV ads of happy "associates" emerged this month in Argentina. Wal-Mart began operations in Argentina 12 years ago. The giant retailer built its first supercenter in Avellaneda, Province of Buenos Aires in 1995. Wal-Mart Argentina, with 15 stores currently, has big plans to open 12 new stores in the next two years, creating 5,000 "new" jobs. The retailer says it now employs more than 5,500 Argentinians in its stores. The company likes to boast that Wal-Mart Argentina was ranked 29th on a "Great Place to Work" poll, and was named the 12th Best Company to Work for in Argentina by Apertura Magazine. The University of Palermo ranked Wal-Mart ranked 10th among companies with the best reputation for social responsibility in Argentina. But earlier this month, in legislative hearings in Buenos Aires, the giant retailer was grilled by lawmakers who are not happy with the company's virulent anti-union policy. According to the newspaper Pagina12, Wal-Mart executives were summoned before the Argentine Chamber of Deputies (similar to the U.S. House of Representatives). The Committee on Labor Legislation wanted Wal-Mart to respond to charges of anti-union activities. The company also had to respond to criticism for their hiring of a retired military official linked with detention centers as Wal-Mart's head of Security. "There are some stores that do not have delegates (union members) because they are recently opened," explained Marcelo Villegas, Wal-Mart's Director of Human Resources. But one lawmaker observed that one Wal-Mart store had been open for 11 years and was still not unionized. Lawmakers were considering a resolution that expressed their "preoccupation with the labor situation and by union persecution within Wal-Mart, as well as by the participation in management positions of ex-members of the Armed Forces that participated in the former military dictatorship." The lawmakers asked Wal-Mart to rehire two workers who were dismissed without cause from the Avellaneda branch after involvement in union organizing. Wal-Mart Argentina's director of Institutional Relations, Human Resources, and manager of Institutional Relations, all testified at the hearing, as did members of the union at Wal-Mart. The union and Wal-Mart testified in separate hearings. Wal-Mart denied any anti-union practices, asserting that some of their workers are affiliated with the union, and that the company has a total 31 union delegates. "Thirty-one delegates for 5,800 workers?" one lawmaker asked. "There are some stores that do not have unions because they are recently opened," Wal-Mart testified. But one lawmaker responded, "It is clear that there is a company policy against unionization and union freedom. It is clear that they knew about the union activity of Cordoba and Schmidt (the fired workers), although they deny it." Deputy Claudius Lozano told reporters, "Accusations of union persecution weigh on this chain in other parts of the world," and added that Wal-Mart has been denounced in the United States by Human Rights Watch for its antiunion corporate policy. The directors minimized the report of the international human rights organization, saying it was based on the testimony of 41 employees or ex-employees. Pagina12 reports that "the most tense moment" in the hearings came when one lawmaker linked Wal-Mart's head of security with concentration camp activity. "Where he was posted, clandestine concentration camps were operating. We all know that we are talking about a clandestine process of repression. Not all the people in charge have been indicted." In a separate hearing with workers, members of the union testified that "In the chronicle of supervisory abuses, women sadly occupy a separate chapter: the degradation of the condition of women has surpassed the limits of their tolerance." The delegates charged that several weeks ago, a 19 year old Wal-Mart cashier told the manager that she was menstruating and requested a replacement to be able to go to the toilet. "She asked several times but thirty minutes passed without any response", said one union member. "When the replacement finally arrived, the cashier's clothes were stained. When the supervisors saw what had happened, they covered her with a coat in plain view of co-workers and customers could see, took her to clean up, bought her new pants and underwear, and sent her back to the cash register to continue ringing."


What you can do: The union delegates also complained that Wal-Mart workers were forced to sing the company song at the start of each work day, in front of customers. They described this practice as "humiliating" for employees. Wal-Mart responded by saying, "It is a greeting to start the day, to build group spirit. It's normal, natural, but it is not required. Those who do not want to, do not sing; nobody is evaluated nor promoted by virtue of how he or she sings." But one Wal-Mart union worker told lawmakers, "Often the song is assigned like punishment, or they take notes on who is not singing, or they make you sing if it is your birthday or if you arrive late at meeting, as they call it."










 
 
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