Daily Maverick

Maybe, just maybe, Vavi has a point about Walmart…

The R30 billion offer that Walmart has made for local wholesaler Massmart contains a lot of positives, like the fact that the West might be starting to think we’re the world’s next big-growth market. On the downside, there are very few multinational companies out there who hold human beings in such low esteem. Recently, the US blog site Gawker provided South African retail workers with a glimpse of what they can expect. By KEVIN BLOOM.

It’s been a while since a proposed business deal has generated this much comment. The announcement on 27 September that Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, had offered to buy Massmart, South Africa’s biggest food and general goods wholesaler, is still generating news stories at the rate of around three a day (as per Google). At the end of September, the stories were mostly focused on one of two angles: first, the supreme vote of confidence in the local economy that the R30 billion offer represented; second, the union-friendly cosmetics that the company would quickly have to apply if it wanted the deal to go through. South Africa’s financial community was jubilant, its unions less so – sure, here was the substantial foreign investment that the country had so long been praying for, but at what price to its workers?

More than three weeks later the stories are still following the same themes, although it’s looking increasingly likely that Cosatu’s “Walmart not welcome” line is going to be ignored. According to a Business Times piece that ran on 17 October, Walmart’s executive vice-president Andy Bond has been in the country meeting with labour bosses to ease fears about job cuts. “We are very, very ambitious about the growth of Massmart and that growth will inevitably fuel job creation,” Bond told the newspaper. “Every market we are in we increase the job market over time.”

Fair enough, but what type of jobs are those going to be? Perhaps South Africa should look to the United States for answers to this question, and specifically to the influential (if sometimes offensive) blog site Gawker, which has been running a series of articles in honour of Walmart’s plan to infiltrate New York City (the retail giant, headquartered in Arkansas, has until now not managed to “make it there”). The first article in the series was published last week and told tales, amongst other things, of puddles of blood and homophobic managers. What Cosatu might be interested in, though, is the following first-person account from a former employee: “On the topic of money, overtime was never and will never be approved, ever. If you should work any hours over 40 in one week, even if called in or requested or threatened by management that you must work, you will not get overtime pay.”

This person went on to say that the place “has a way of demoralising you and making you feel worthless,” which is not surprising, given that he’s gay and his boss seemed to loathe him for it. Still, in the interests of fairness, Gawker did post a quote from a proud supporter of Walmart, a dude who clearly wasn’t swayed by the company’s famous employee-morale-boosting seminars in any way. “Walmart is the best company I have ever worked for,” he told Gawker. “There are so many career oppurtunities. There are so many benefits for the associates. I don’t think a union would be beneficial to me.” 

See, Mr Vavi? Walmart is the best company he’s ever worked for and he doesn’t need unions. Which is just as well, because even if he wanted to join one he wouldn’t have been allowed to. The second piece in Gawker’s series, entitled “Surviving on the inside,” dedicates a sub-section to employees’ experiences with unionisation (or the lack thereof). “I worked at Walmart for almost a year and can definitely attest to all the negatives that were posted,” said one former worker. “I specifically remember not just a lecture about how bad unions are, but at least two videos as well. I’m sitting there, as a history major, just incredulous at the blatant propaganda. I looked at the people around me to see if they were as stunned as I was, but they were taking it all in and were completely non-plussed.”

Okay, so maybe the history major used “non-plussed” in the wrong context. Maybe he suggested the other people were confused when he meant to suggest that they were credulous. It doesn’t detract from what another ex-staffer had to say about unions: “It’s true that Walmart openly discourages any talk of unionising and the main justification they give for this is their ‘open door policy’. Under the policy the worker is supposedly able to speak to any level of supervisor over any issue without fear of retribution. In practice, of course, this policy is complete crap. At the store I worked at the higher-level management would have so much turnover and transferring to different areas of the store that I could never keep track of who exactly was in charge of what. So if you had a problem with your immediate supervisor you were supposed to expect someone who wouldn’t even know your name if it wasn’t clipped on to your tacky blue vest to stand up for you and cause a stir? In the four-year period I was in and out of there (on summers and holidays while I was going to college) I never saw any legitimate complaint by a lower-level employee dealt with.”

It’s likely that from a South African perspective, readers of the above will say, “So what?” Walmart’s ability to buy in bulk is unmatched by any retailer anywhere on the planet, and taken together with its policy of keeping overheads low – by, amongst other things, paying barely legal wages – it can offer consumers incredibly low prices on an incredibly wide range of products. What’s more, existing players in the retail space will be forced to drop their own prices in order to compete, and the cash-strapped consumer will benefit even more. And that’s not even mentioning the boon to the South African economy the R30 billion deal represents in terms of foreign direct investment, which has been very scarce of late, and which suggests that the West might actually be starting to view us as the next great emerging market.

These points can’t be argued with. But then, from Cosatu’s point-of-view, neither can this: “I was working as a cashier while I was pregnant and all I wanted was a stool to sit down on occasionally, between customers. I was told that cashiers were expected to stand at all times. If I needed a stool it would prove that I was unable to perform the essential duties of my job and I would be forced to take my allotted three-month leave early. At eight months pregnant when the constant standing was causing early contractions and I had a doctors note confirming this fact, the band of management decided the best solution was not to give me a freaking chair but to cut my hours significantly so I could ‘go home and rest more.’ It should be obvious by now that I would not have been working there while pregnant in the first place if I didn’t really need the extra money. But, being ready to burst, I had no choice but to let them screw me over until the baby came. Luckily I was able to find another job during my leave and I never went back.” DM

Read more: “Walmart’s Bond gives his word on jobs,” in The Times, “Life at Walmart: The Workers Speak, Vol. 1,” in Gawker, “Life at Walmart: Surviving on the inside, Vol. 2,” in Gawker.

Photo: Doug McMillon, President and CEO, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. International, speaks to shareholders at Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s annual general meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas. June 4, 2010. REUTERS/Sarah Conard.

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