Friday, December 22, 2006

Wal-Mart: For the Better or for Worse?

Wal-Mart is an every growing company. Most recently, in Canada, they opened three "supercentres", which are stores that are even larger than normal Wal-Marts and include more groceries, in London, Stouffville and Ancaster (all in Ontario). In fact, Wal-Mart has 273 stores across Canada, and plans to open 14 more by the end of 2007. Wal-Mart, of course, has also received a lot (in my opinion, they are well deserving of it) criticism about labour and ethics.

So what is the problem with Wal-Mart? There are plenty, some of which I will go through.
1. Labour
Wal-Mart and labour. As you may guess, this is a very lengthy topic, which I can only briefly talk about. If you would like to read more, please go to the very lengthy Wikipedia document: Wal-Mart employee and labor relations.
Some of the allegations against Wal-Mart in respect to labour have included being "forced" to work 'off-the-clock', discriminating against race and gender, and extreme retaliation against unionization, to name a few. I would like to write about its union "problems". According to the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (and by the way I highly recommend it), Wal-Mart has actually bought 'spy-vans' to spy on and follow workers who they think are pro-union. The film also says that they have video cameras in the employee break rooms to monitor union activity. Also with unions, there is actually only one Wal-Mart store in all of North America that is unionized: Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. There was also a unionized (or attempting to unionize) store in Jonquière, Quebec. But Wal-Mart closed that store, and many believe that was because of its union activity. Luckily for the workers, Québec law makes it so that Wal-Mart must pay all workers the same wage until they are offered similar employment. Finally, the film also brings up the Wal-Mart labour situation in Germany, where they have very tough pro-union laws. The workers get quite good way, they get somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks of vacation, and most importantly, they like their jobs.
2. Small Business
A 1997 study at Iowa State University found that small towns can lose almost half of their retail trade within 10 years of a Wal-Mart opening. Again, I have watch the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, and it tells the story of a few small town stores, and how they had to close because of Wal-Mart taking away all of their business. This is one of the biggest problems with letting Wal-Mart go where ever it wants to, and in unlimited quantities (meaning lots of stores in one city. Saskatoon has about 220,000 people and three Wal-Marts; one is under construction. One company based in Arkansas has almost taken over the retail market worldwide. And it is not like it is nice socially responsible company, either. The CEO (Lee Scott) makes much more money in a week than the 'associates' make in a lifetime. And as the comic to the left depicts, and this happens way too often, many people who have spent their lives and their life savings on a business, which they truly loved, have seen it go bankrupt because of this mega-store. Wal-Mart also likes to take credit for all of the jobs it brings to communities, like all of the people it takes to run a Wal-Mart just didn't have jobs before. They had jobs, in local businesses. But when those shops had to close, they had not other choice but to work for Wal-Mart, and put up with, especially in small communities with a lack of employers, anything Wal-Mart asked of them. Finally, I have a relative in North Battleford, Saskatchewan who is, like me, a New Democrat and anti-Wal-Mart. But she, like many anti-Wal-Marters, must shop there on occasion. The reason is that because many small businesses closed, there are a few things now in North Battleford that must be bought at Wal-Mart, no one else has it anymore. Just another way that Wal-Mart is taking over retail.
3. Sprawl
Having Wal-Marts causes urban sprawl. Again, back to the film with the small towns where businesses closed. Many of the businesses of those small places were downtown, and on Saturdays, downtown 'small place' was quite busy for a small town. But seeing the large size of Wal-Marts, they could not be downtown, they had to be on the outskirts of the town. So when many of the downtown businesses closed, no one had a need to go downtown. And, unfortunately, this same principle happened in many cities, too.

So what is the solution to Wal-Mart. It is obviously not possible to create a law that makes the existence of Wal-Mart illegal in Canada, but there are things that we can do to at the least create a better Wal-Mart. Like what they did in Germany, we can create tougher, more pro-workers labour laws, make tax and zoning laws that encourage very small Wal-Marts (by making it much more costly to have mega-sized stores) which may even make downtown Wal-Marts and create regulations and we can create tax climates which make it easier for small businesses to compete. And lastly, we can do the good old advocacy work to show people why they should not shop at Wal-Mart.

1 comment:

Ray said...

I just cannot see how so many people can shop at Walmart! Even on a Sunday morning, I can drive by Walmart, and the parking lot (which is huge) is 3/4 full! Such odd people