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Wal-Mart workers critique labor conditions

Wal-Mart's official code of conduct for its overseas suppliers may mandate the humane treatment of workers, but in reality it is just empty words, according to the overseas delegation of three Wal-Mart workers who spoke Monday night in List Art Center as part of the International Wal-Mart Worker Tour.

The tour was organized by the International Labor Rights Fund, in conjunction with local unions in developing countries. It has traveled to Kansas, Missouri and Washington, D.C. over the past two weeks in an attempt to raise awareness about conditions in Wal-Mart supplier factories in developing countries. The event at Brown - brought to campus by the Brown Student Labor Alliance and the ILRF - was formatted as a panel made up of Wal-Mart workers and local union members from three different countries. Each worker out-lined the state of Wal-Mart factory conditions in their home countries of Nicaragua, Colombia and the Philippines.

Damarys Meza Guillen said she is hardly able to keep up with the daily goal Wal-Mart sets for her of inspecting 1,000 pairs of jeans in a Nicaragua factory. A former law student who had to drop out to support her family, Guillen said she now works well over her scheduled hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week in order to meet the quotas, though she does not get paid overtime. "The code of conduct is very nice. They have it up on the wall like a picture. But we need a permanent representative from Wal-Mart to see that the code is enforced," she said.

Wal-Mart's code of conduct for maintaining humane work-ing conditions is part of the Supplier Standards Agreement it enters into with each of its foreign suppliers.

High production quotas from Wal-Mart sometimes force workers in the Philippines to work 24 hours in one day with-out the option of getting drinking water during working hours, said Florie Arevalo. Arevalo said in spite of a Wal-Mart mandate that sets the minimum wage at the factory at $0.62 per hour, over 60 percent of employees receive $0.46 per hour.

Although the factory where Arevalo works started producing Wal-Mart goods in 2000, work-ers only came face-to-face with a Wal-Mart representative in 2003, she said, when the corporation wanted to bust a workers' union that had recently formed to protest the oppressive conditions.

At flower plantations in Columbia, where the bouquets sold at Wal-Mart are cut and packaged, conditions are similar to the apparel factories, said Stella Inés Orjuela. Workers on her plantation are also not permitted to get drinking water on the job, nor are they ever given permission to see a doctor, she said. As a result of the repetitive motion of cutting flowers for 15 hours each day, many of her co-workers have developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and some cannot move their hands anymore, she said.

Arevalo said Wal-Mart not only exploits labor so it can sell its products cheaply, but also lies to its employees about how much their products cost abroad. "They tell (workers) they can't pay them more because they only get two dollars for a shirt, but when I came to the U.S. I noticed the same thing they were talking about cost $14.42," she said. "What this comes down to is holding Wal-Mart responsible for oppressive working conditions in our factory."

Trina Tocco, a program assis-tant for the ILRF who introduced the workers, said the ILRF is working together with unions such as the ones Arevalo, Orjuela and Guillen represent in order to hold Wal-Mart accountable in U.S. courts for failing to uphold its corporate code of conduct. As part of its agenda, the ILRF filed a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart in California on Sept. 13, 2005. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of workers in several developing nations as well as California Wal-Mart workers.

In the question-and-answer session following the panel presentation, one student said that the condition of workers in developing countries might be a painful but necessary step for their countries to adapt to more modern conditions and questioned what workers could accomplish by trying to change things in their lifetime. "The changes we see now started from people generations back fighting," said Guillen. "That's why we are fighting right now."

"The Filipino Labor Union has been struggling for 100 years and the condition remains the same," said Arnel Salvador, Arevalo's translator who works for a worker's rights non-governmental organization in the Philippines.

Ward 1 City Councilman David Segal gave a brief speech after the panelists had finished presenting. He said the worker tour highlighted the importance of a new initiative he is pushing that would get Providence to sign its own code of conduct against unfair labor practices for the $1.5 million it spends on apparel per year.

Chris Hu '06, a leader of the Student Labor Alliance, spoke about the connection of the tour to the Brown community. "We're currently meeting with administrators to make sure that Brown apparel is actually manufactured by the list of designated suppliers we submitted to them," Hu said. "Everything that is sold with a Brown logo is supposed to be made under fair conditions, but the actuality of it right now is more complicated."


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