Friday, October 1, 2004

Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart

From The Statesman

CYBER AGE: Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart


Big events don’t necessarily portend the future. People live with hurricanes and earthquakes. Lives don’t change fundamentally. The Twin Towers are gone. New York continues, probably livelier and better prepared for future eventualities. Americans are in the midst of a great hullabaloo: the mega media event created by Bill Clinton and the publishers of the supposedly confessional account of his life and times; the handing over of sovereignty, fact and fiction, on a platter to Iraqis with live on the Internet beheading and cries of the innocent; and the Bush-Kerry simmering presidential campaign. Yet, from a long-term perspective, the quality of life in the USA may not be much affected by the raging media storms. Clinton would justify his $10 millions royalty advance; Iraqis would continue their daily bloody rituals, freedom or no freedom, for some time to come; and anyone who goes to the White House would be wondering, so much power, yet so little foresight, so little wisdom. When small things aggregate, they bring about great changes. One of the world’s biggest retail giant, Wal-Mart, that sells small things at low prices and buys massive quantities from inshore and offshore sources at blood and sweat wages, mostly of women, may have greater impact upon the world than Al-Qaida or Clinton’s My Life. As the retail giant scrounges and sponges the third world for cheap goods, in the USA it keeps overheads low by hiring mostly female workers at wages much less generous than it pays its male employees. In 2001, the year Al-Qaida hit Twin Towers and the Pentagon, six women said to Wal-Mart, this is discrimination and you can’t do it. Six women snowballed into 1. 6 million current and former women employees who in a class-action suit charged that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, paid less and gave fewer promotions to women than to male employees. In the land of equality, this is a serious accusation. And the US District Court Judge Martin J Jenkins found that the plaintiffs did “present largely uncontested descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time, that women take longer to enter management position, and that the higher one looks in the organisation, the lower the percentage of women.”Although there’s prima-facie evidence of discrimination against women, the judge hedged his exuberance and corrected himself by saying that he was simply certifying that the class action could go ahead and “shouldn’t be construed in any manner as a ruling on the merit or probable outcome of the case.” Gender and race-based discrimination is an anathema in US society and Judge Jenkins, evoking the 50th anniversary of the landmark case Brown v Board of Education, said that the anniversary “serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law wherever and by whomever it occurs.” In its unanimous decision in 1954, the US Supreme Court mandated school integration, ruling that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place,” nullifying an 1896 ruling that it was constitutional to educate black students separately, provided school facilities were equal. In many ways, Brown v Board of Education ruling was the beginning of the epic struggle for justice and racial equality, which flowered in Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s grand vision, “I have a dream…” Now these 1.6 million women say that Wal-Mart has been denying to them their dreams of equal opportunities.This is, however, not the first gender-discrimination class-action suit against corporate USA. Home Depot, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Public Super Markets and many others were hit with class-action suits for discriminatory employment practices and paid millions of dollars in settlement. Unfortunately, all these cases were out-of-court settlements, which means close public scrutiny was avoided. Such settlements might solve immediate problems but they do not advance the cause, in this case breaking the cultural glass ceiling that keeps women down even if they have degrees from Harvard and Wharton and are capable of doing better jobs then men. That’s the fear that the class-action suit lawyers fighting for more than a million Wal-Mart women workers in the USA might succumb to the temptation of making a quick buck for themselves rather than taking the fight to its logical conclusion, that is, ending workplace discrimination against women once for all. A golden opportunity would be lost.A precedent set in the USA would be followed wherever Wal-Mart and other multinationals go, for example, India, where local companies would have no choice but to offer competitive opportunities to their female employees at par with what they offer to males, another consequence of globalisation. As women advance, so does civilisation.


  1. Dear Dr. Batra,

    My name is D. Andres Jacome, founder of catablast! communications, a rapidly growing e-news journal.

    My staff and I read your essay on WalMart and found it very interesting. With your permission, we would like to reprint the story on our website.

    Over the next 2 quaters we anticipate increased traffic on our homepage as we begin advertising both via the internet and within New York City.

    You will gain exposure outside of your niche; we, on the other hand, get to diversify our content and journalistic style. Note that CataBlast! manily covers business topics, and that is how we found your site to begin with.

    Please let us know where you stand. Of course, FULL acknowledgement of its author and source will be included.


  2. Dear Mr. Jacome,

    Thanks. You may publish the column "Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart".
    ND Batra