Wal-Mart on board with workers’ rights groups

  • May 14, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - Another story about garment workers forced into 24-hour shifts, beaten and fired for joining a union, paid less than Philippine minimum wage (between 51 and 68 cents an hour) to produce women’s shirts for Wal-Mart shoppers wouldn’t shock anybody.
That the conflict between factory owners and workers in a Filipino export processing zone has led to the murder of a crusading bishop wouldn’t be surprising either.

But this time Wal-Mart has cried foul and demanded the Korean-owned factory respect the rights of workers. The world’s largest retailer has hung in, trying to get the factory to live up to Wal-Mart’s corporate social responsibility code, while other North American companies — Gap, American Eagle, Ann Taylor and Target — have left.

On the other side of the ledger, labour organizations are trying to drum up business for the factory — if it changes its ways.

Last September 117 workers at Chong Won Fashion Inc. walked off the job demanding management begin bargaining with their union, certified as the bargaining agent for the factory in 2003. Workers had been waiting three years for negotiations on a first contract to begin while management either ignored the union’s existence or filed legal challenges to the legitimacy of the union.

When the workers walked out, management fired them for being away from work without permission. Management then claimed that with 117 fewer members the union no longer represents a majority of 300 regular, full-time employees. Then on Sept. 25 and 27, 40 strikers, mainly women, suffered head injuries and bruises in confrontations with police called in by the Philippine Economic Zone Authority.

This was one of two bitter, contentious strikes going on just outside the gates of the Cavite Export Processing Zone in the fall. Both strikes were supported by the Workers’ Assistance Centre, an agency supported by several churches in the Philippines. When Bishop Alberto Ramento of the Philippine Independent Church turned up in his Tarlac City church stabbed to death Oct. 3, Filipinos connected the murder with his position as chair of the Workers’ Assistance Centre.

KAIROS, the Canadian ecumenical social justice coalition, has written to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo demanding an investigation into police and the army. The WAC claims Bishop Ramento’s name had appeared on an “Order of Battle” list which circulates among the military.

When allegations of worker rights violations surfaced in the United States, Wal-Mart commissioned its own report on conditions and conflict at the Chong Won factory. When that report confirmed that Chong Won violates the Wal-Mart corporate social responsibility code of conduct for suppliers the company stepped in.

“It’s a new experience that a brand, a big company, actually intervenes in this dispute between a union and the factory at the ground level,” Workers’ Assistance Centre lawyer Renato Pambid told The Catholic Register while visiting Toronto in May.

The U.S. company, along with its Philippine subsidiary, arranged Nov. 3 and 7 meetings of factory management, union representatives and One Step Up Ltd. One Step Up is the New York City-based supplier to Wal-Mart that actually contracted Chong Won to fill Wal-Mart’s order. At the meetings Wal-Mart laid down the law in the form of a memorandum of understanding which told Chong Won and One Step Up that to remain on the active list for future business with Wal-Mart the factory must reinstate the 117 fired workers, bargain for a first collective agreement, train workers so they know they have a right to join a union, upgrade working conditions and put a compliance program in place.

That would be a big change for a factory which, according to workers, used to post signs reminding employees they are not allowed to take bathroom breaks or drink water during working hours, then pull the signs down the day before social auditors came to inspect.

Canada’s church- and labour-supported Maquila Solidarity Network is worried that Wal-Mart’s effort so far may fall just short of saving the jobs of Filipino workers who had the courage to join a union in an export zone set up in the 1980s under dictator Ferdinand Marcos as a low-tax, no-union haven for low-wage industrial employers. Without another Wal-Mart-One Step Up contract Chong Won will close shop.

Keeping Chong Won on the active list for future business doesn’t necessarily mean the factory will get another contract, even if it does fulfil the conditions of Wal-Mart’s memorandum of understanding, said Maquila Solidarity Network executive director Bob Jeffcott. Jeffcott wants Wal-Mart to guarantee Chong Won a contract if it negotiates with the union.

He has also been trying to get Gap and Target back on board to promise orders to a reformed Chong Won factory. So far the two companies have said they would address the situation, but haven’t yet replied to the Maquila Solidarity Network’s proposals. Jeffcott appreciates that Wal-Mart has not cut and run from Chong Won yet, but worries that without the additional step of a guaranteed contract the result could be the same as cutting and running — a closed factory and unemployed workers owed back wages.

Wal-Mart counters that the company continues to meet with its subcontractors and that the memorandum of understanding sets clear conditions for future business between Wal-Mart and Chong Won.

“If this was a cut and run we would no longer be involved,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

Wal-Mart has placed one more order with the factory in order to secure the right to inspect it, and contracted third-party auditing firm Verité to inspect Chong Won.

“We note that, to date, Wal-Mart has not withdrawn its participation. Neither has it formally cut or withdrawn its order,” said Pambid. “That’s a breakthrough for us.”

But Pambid believes Filipino workers need the support of Canadian consumers if they’re to ultimately achieve fair, decent working conditions.

“The products coming from Chong Won are being produced by oppressing, abusing workers,” he said. “If buyers in Canada would also live up to their commitment not to be part of any plan or activity to abuse workers from another country, then they would ultimately not buy from Wal-Mart.”

Wal-Mart’s ethical standards program is working, and the Chong Won factory is an example of how it works to improve conditions in the garment industry, according to Gardner.

“This is part of our effort to provide leadership in ethical sourcing,” he said.

If that’s true, then Pambid is cheering for Wal-Mart.

“If they can pull this off, they can say we’re serious abut our code of conduct — we’re not just doing lip service,” Pambid said.

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