Two thousand shrimp workers from Cambodia and Myanmar, who suffered human rights abuses and indentured servitude at the hands of department store giant Walmart, recently protested at a shrimp supplier in Thailand. This was yet another case highlighting the severe worker abuse perpetuated by the retail chain.
In response to the shrimp workers’ protest, police were called, and shots were fired, according to a press release by Change to Win, one of the two major U.S. labor federations.
The massive protest was a direct response to Walmart’s factory managers, who slashed the workers’ wages (which had already been at poverty-level and didn’t cover basic life staples). Those wages, in fact, were so low that many workers became indebted to the factory, forced to stay on as de facto servants. Later, managers snatched the workers’ passports in an effort to force them to stay.
Of the 2,000 workers, 1,500 hail from Cambodia, and 500 from Myanmar. Many of them remain financially trapped at the factory, from which 73 percent of shipments to the U.S. go directly to Walmart.
Additionally, in what is a problematic human trafficking situation, reports have arisen that children aged 15 or younger have been bought and sold to work there.
Phatthana Seafood owns the shrimp-processing factory, and is a significant exporter to the U.S., Europe, and Australia. It is part of the Rubicon Group, which is one of Walmart’s largest suppliers.
“Walmart customers around the world may be buying shrimp and unwittingly supporting near-slavery, debt bondage, and child labor,” reported SumOfUs.
Walmart is already under pressure after an expose of a top-level cover-up of a bribery scandal by the company in Mexico. Workers rights activists in Asia and union organizers here in the U.S. feel the time is ripe for bringing an end to some of Walmart’s most abusive practices and thereby give a measure of protection to vulnerable workers overseas and here at home.
Walmart is “the number one threat to all union wages and non-union wages, hours, benefits, and job security,” said Moises Zavala, lead organizer with the Chicago United Food and Commercial Workers recently. “They are leading a big race to the bottom.”
Unions note that whenever Walmart is exposed for committing atrocities overseas, the injustices are actually extensions of practices tried and tested first in America. When the Mexican bribery scandal came to light, U.S. activists noted that bribery and strong-arming was also a feature of company policy in the states.
James Thindwa, a long-time labor activist who has campaigned against Walmart’s entrance into the Chicago marketplace, says “the company has long made contributions to politicians to get them in line for approval of Walmart expansion plans. They even had a long-time civil rights leader, Andrew Young, go around and build support for their plans in minority communities.”
When a Chicago Walmart Express store opened, moreover, the correlation between anti-worker atrocities here and in Thailand was plain to see. The superstore’s warehouse in Elwood, Ill. had violated a so-called ‘ethics policy,’ and deprived workers of earned pay. When they complained to Walmart about the stolen wages, 65 of them were summarily fired.
“We were not getting paid what we were promised when we were hired,” said Leticia Rodriguez, a worker at the warehouse. “We were fired without notice, so we couldn’t plan ahead.”
Workers are fighting back against Walmart, both in Thailand where the company uses slave labor and here in the U.S. where abuse of workers at warehouses it has contracted with are rampant. Employees at Walmart stores in the U.S. are making the first moves toward a display of international solidarity in their fight against the retail giant.
Organizers with Making Change at Walmart, a project of the UFCW International Union, have been aiding the Phatthana Seafood workers raise their voices and pressure the anti-labor retail outfit.
To that end, they recently sent a letter to Walmart, outlining in detail the abuses and manipulation for which the factory in Thailand is responsible.
“Receiving half the hours and pay promised to them, and without promised lodging and transportation, many of the [shrimp] workers face malnutrition, because they are unable to afford enough to eat,” the letter noted.
Photo: Walmart workers with organization United for Respect at Walmart protest the retail giant’s vicious anti-labor policies and tactics.