Friday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Wal-Mart “is planning to monitor subcontractors’ U.S. warehouses, in the same way it tries to police conditions at suppliers’ factories around the globe.”
For the more than half-million Americans who work in warehouses like those that supply Wal-Mart—the Labor Department puts their number at 672,000—this is modestly good news. As the Prospect has been reporting since 2009, Wal-Mart and America’s other discount retailers don’t employ their warehouse workers directly. In the Ontario-Fontana exurbs of Los Angeles, where half the imports that come into the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors are trucked to be unloaded, arranged on pallets, and retrucked to Wal-Mart and kindred stores for a thousand miles around, the warehouses themselves are owned by property management companies, and they’re run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart and other retailers contract. But the logistics companies aren’t the workers’ employers of record. Rather, some 270 temporary employment agencies in the areas are the workers’ legal employers. Some of the workers I interviewed had gone through dozens of such employers, even though they had worked at the same job in the same warehouse for more than a decade.
In the Ontario-Fontana warehouse complexes, nearly 100,000 workers are employed through this circuitous maze. Comparable numbers of workers are employed in New Jersey, near the New York harbor, and in Illinois, to distribute goods to the Midwest. Underpaid and working in conditions that have led California’s Labor Department to open investigations for alleged violations including excessive heat and the lack of safety equipment, the workers have had no employer to whom they can take their grievances. The subcontracting system that Wal-Mart developed shields the company behind multiple layers of deniability.
In 2009, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, America’s largest union of retail works, and the Teamsters, organizers began working among the warehouse workers, staging actions that this year included a United-Farm-Workers-style march from the warehouses to downtown Los Angeles. The election of Democrat Jerry Brown as California’s governor in 2010 also put the state’s labor department under the direction of Julie Su, who has followed up the workers’ complaints with ongoing investigations and fines for companies found in violation of worker safety ordinances. Wal-Mart’s decision to set up a monitoring program for the warehouses is its first acknowledgment that it has any responsibility for the U.S. warehouses that are a key part of its supply chain.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Wal-Mart is modeling its program after its monitoring program for subcontractors’ overseas factories – the same program that neglected to note that a Bangladesh factory that had been cited for multiple violations was nonetheless turning out clothes for Wal-Mart’s shelves. That was the factory, of course, where 112 garment workers died when a fire swept the factory in November, the factory from which workers could not escape because the doors were locked from the outside. The New York Times’ invaluable Steve Greenhouse reported that at a meeting with government officials in Bangladesh one year earlier, “the Wal-Mart official there played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety.”
Now Wal-Mart has decided to establish a similar monitoring system for its U.S. warehouses. Hold the applause.