Photo by A. Lutty

From Bangladesh to Illinois to Maryland, Walmart’s global business model is based on creating a system that keeps workers in a cycle of low wages, no voice on the job, and dangerous working conditions, according to testimony provided by four workers on April 4 in Washington, DC.

Cynthia Murray has worked at Walmart’s Laurel, Md., store for 11 years. Yet even with such an unusual level of seniority for a high-turnover employer, she earns just $19,000 a year as a full-time associate and cannot afford the company’s health benefits. “I pray every day that I don’t get sick,” she said.

Murray and her co-workers are forced to work exceptionally hard for such low pay because the store is continually understaffed, she explained. To improve these harsh conditions, Murray is working with other associates to organize for a voice in her workplace. But Walmart’s management runs a program of intimidation to try and silence associates. “I’ve been speaking out for two and a half years,” she said, “but they bring in someone from Bentonville, Arkansas, to scare people. They want everyone to be afraid.”

Robert J. Hines, Jr., worked at a Joliet, Ill., warehouse that supplies Walmart stores, but found he was being cheated out of his promised pay. “I was told I would be paid $10 an hour plus piecework, but then I was only paid for piecework,” he said. “I’ve got six kids. I couldn’t feed them on that.” Hines challenged his manager to pay what he was owed, but “he cussed us out like we were pond scum,” Hines recalled. Hines quit and filed a lawsuit for back pay.

Halfway around the world, Aleya Akter had it even worse. She started work in a Bangladesh sweatshop that produces jackets and trousers for Walmart when she was just nine years old. Her starting salary was $7 a month. She was forced to work 14 hours in a row, seven days a week, without overtime pay. She was even denied bathroom breaks.

Today, 17 years later, she earns $80 a month, which is still not enough to cover her living expenses. Forced overtime and other violations are still routine. The marginal improvements they won were due to Akter and her co-workers organizing for better conditions, but their efforts have come at great cost, with workers brutally beaten by supervisors for trying to improve their lives.

Kalpona Akter, a former sweatshop worker who now works with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said that violence against workers and other abuses are widespread in factories that supply clothes for Walmart. She has experienced this first-hand. In August, she and her colleagues were seized in a crackdown against worker rights advocates and imprisoned on unfounded criminal charges filed by the Nassa Group, a major supplier to Walmart. They were jailed, beaten and tortured for their activism on behalf of sweatshop workers and are facing charges that could result in life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Kalpona Akter noted the tragic irony that today, 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 New York garment workers, similar deadly fires occur regularly in Bangladesh where dozens of workers die because the exits are locked.

The four panelists urged concerned citizens to take action to get Walmart to change, including applying international pressure on the company to use its unmatched power in dictating terms to its suppliers for the better rather than the worse. “If Walmart paid a fair price for the clothes we make, we could have a better workplace,” Aleya Akter said through a translator.

Forum attendees made the connection between Walmart’s system of keeping workers trapped in a cycle of poverty jobs and its efforts to open four stores in Washington, DC. “We need jobs, but what is a poverty job going to do for us?” Murray asked.

“They’re already in the suburbs and they’re not doing right by people in the suburbs,” she said. “Do you want the same thing to happen in DC? We need to send a message to Walmart: Do right by our communities or stay out.”