Monday, November 07, 2005

More Big Bad Wal-Mart

Here's more to assuage a bit everyone's insatiable hunger for more horror stories filtering out of Bentonville, AK. The American Prospect has a profile of one whistle-blower suing Wal-Mart for unjust termination. His name is Jim Lynn and this is what happened:
In 2002 the company sent Lynn to Central America, in a new position in which he was to report on any abusive labor practices he came upon in the factories that make the clothes Wal-Mart puts on its shelves. Lynn was shocked: He discovered factories whose fire doors were padlocked from the outside, and where women workers were fired if they turned up pregnant. Lynn firmly believed that his reports to the home office would lead to improvements. Indeed, he believed he was doing just what the company expected of him, right up to the moment when he was fired.
According to Harold Meyerson's profile Lynn was an exceptional employee that had scorched up Wal-Mart's ladder to prominence. So what could he have done to get himself fired? Here's a lenghty segment from the article:
Lynn's inspection visits left him stunned. The night he visited Glory Garments, he called his wife and wept. He called Bentonville and complained. He shot reports back to the home office. He assumed things would change. Instead, Lynn soon found that the company was more alarmed by the existence of his reports than by the substance of them. He traveled to Bentonville to report his findings to Denise Fenton, Wal-Mart's director of factory certification -- who promptly instructed him in some of the finer points of certification policy. "First," Lynn recalls, "you can only interview 30 people [per factory]. If you get to the 29th and 30th and discover stuff, it doesn't matter -- you have to stop. Second, even though Wal-Mart says they want unannounced inspections, we had to notify the factories in advance. If there were any blatant violations, they had the opportunity to clean those up."

It was abundantly clear to Lynn that Violim was out to get him. Lynn says that soon after his arrival in Costa Rica, Violim took away his key to the office and changed the alarm codes, denied his requests for security when he traveled in the field, and was furious when Lynn went over his head to tell Bentonville that he would not travel without security to Colombia. The tipping point may well have come at a meeting in Costa Rica that April with Mike Duke, then Wal-Mart's executive vice president for administration and today its vice chairman (and possible successor to CEO H. Lee Scott). Lynn was kept out of most of the meeting, but at the end of the day he was allowed to give a PowerPoint presentation on the condition of area factories. When he was done, Lynn recalls, Duke asked him what grade he would give Wal-Mart on its factory-certification program. "I said, 'C-minus or D-plus.' I didn't realize what a surprise this would be to everybody."

As soon as the meeting was done, Lynn says, he was taken aside by Violim and Peter Allison, who was managing director of Wal-Mart's global-procurement division. "I was told, 'You don't tell a man like Mike Duke something like that.' I had never before in my career been told to lie."

Lynn's career at Wal-Mart was just about done. The following week, Violim sent Lynn and Martha Bolanos, a co-worker who reported to Lynn, to Guatemala for another inspection tour. Lynn had been repeatedly assured that Wal-Mart would provide security on this trip, as it routinely does in potentially dangerous countries. When he arrived, though, there were no guards in evidence. What Wal-Mart had arranged for instead was an undercover surveillance team to shadow Lynn and Bolanos, and it documented virtually their every move.

Two weeks later, Lynn was summoned to a meeting with Violim and Andrea Cooper, the human-resources manager for the company's global-procurement division, who'd come down from Bentonville for the occasion. Escorted by Wal-Mart security guards, who stayed just outside the room, Lynn was accused of violating the company's fraternization policy. In Lynn's account, Violim informed him of the surveillance, yelled and cursed at him, and told him he could not leave the room without forfeiting his job unless he signed a statement acknowledging his relationship with Bolanos. The statement Lynn signed said that he and Bolanos had kissed -- and Lynn does acknowledge that "there was a kiss." The following day, Lynn was discharged. Bolanos, who remains in Central America and is unavailable for comment, was discharged, too.

The company says that Lynn's firing was solely the result of his interactions with Bolanos. "This is not a whistle-blower case," says Beth Keck. "He was terminated because he had inappropriate contact with a woman who directly reported to him."
Hmmm, surveillance that bears fruit of "inappropriate contact" with an underling -- sounds shady. As Lynn tells it someone was sent a month before his kissy-kissy incident to effectively take control of his operation. So he was effectively fired before he was fired. As you probably know, this is just another example of Wal-Mart's culture of corporate impunity.

If you're interested in more documented cases of alleged and verified acts of Wal-Mart's various labor violations and immoral behavior check out Robert Greenwald's site for his new doc, "Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost." And if you want more information on sweatshops worldwide, check out Charles Kernaghan and his excellent group of activists at The National Labor Committe. I first met Charlie working on a documentary for Bill Moyers and he was such a great, crusty, no bullshit kind of guy. He and his organization deserve your support.