Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Clean Up on Aisle Five: Who Pays When Wal-Mart Keeps Prices-And Standards of Living-Low?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Clean Up on Aisle Five: Who Pays When Wal-Mart Keeps Prices-And Standards of Living-Low?

Article excerpt

BEHIND EVERY GREAT FORTUNE IS A CRIME, WROTE Balzac. Sometimes they are big crimes--like selling I opium to Chinese peasants or war profiteering with Nazi industrialists--but just as often great family fortunes accumulate through the small, steady contributions of a whole mess of littler offenses.

In September, Forbes magazine's annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans included the usual suspects like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates (who, it turns out, actually do have more money than God), but an astonishing five of the top 10 came from within the membership of the real Sam's club, Sam Walton's widow and progeny. Inheritors of a fortune built on the backs of 1.4 million employees in 4,300 Wal-Mart stores worldwide, the Waltons were each worth $20.5 billion in 2003, comprising a total family fortune of $102 billion plus. Good night, John-boy!

Wal-Mart was again in the news soon after the list's release. Seems its executives were shocked, shocked to discover that a good chunk of their overnight cleaning crews were living illegally in the United States, having extended visits sans papers from faraway lands in Eastern Europe and Mexico.

Many of these undocumented workers--who, as illegal residents working night shifts, were doubly invisible to mainstream America--labored for months on end without a single day off, at extremely low wages, and with, naturally, no benefits. But unpleasant stories about the way Wal-Mart treats its employees is old news to clan Walton.

Rabidly anti-union, the Wal-Mart corporation currently faces scores of lawsuits and Labor Department investigations across the country. Ex-Wal-Marteers--they are legion--complain of sexual harassment or discrimination, being forced to work off the clock, and subsistence wages that drove them to public assistance.

What connects these abuses? The relative vulnerability of the company's workforce, primarily women with few employment opportunities, little education, and none of the power associated with unionized workers.

Americans have been taught to view griping about massive individual wealth as so much useless, leftist sour grapes, but vast disparities in personal wealth are a threat to a healthy democracy, and how Wal-Mart behaves as a corporate citizen does matter to the rest of us--even if we're never likely to don a blue smock. …

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