Women's war against Wal-Mart

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D. Murali

WHO will be the happiest if our Government were to relax the norms for FDI in retailing? John B. Menzer, President and CEO of Wal-Mart. But, what Wal-Mart may be the unhappiest to read could well be Liza Featherstone's Selling Women Short, from Basic Books ( , because the book is about "the landmark battle for workers' rights" there. Yes, we're talking about the Dukes case, snowballing into the largest gender discrimination lawsuit in history that may affect 1.6 million women, comprising past and present employees of the company.

And, here're a few statistics for starters: Wal-Mart grossed $244.5 billion sales in the fiscal ending January 2003; every week it has 138 million people shopping at its outlets; and if it were a country, "it would be China's fifth-largest export market."

"Wal-Mart employees on television appear to be delighted with their jobs, but reality is another story," says the book's dust jacket, before highlighting the $14,500 salary difference between men and women. "Women are routinely denied promotions, or even the opportunity for further training. Sexist comments and direct insults are a part of daily life ... and single mothers are told to make room for a less qualified man `with a family to provide for'."

Women make up 72 per cent of Wal-Mart's hourly workforce and this is the non-salaried segment. As managers, women constitute only 34 per cent. "Sex discrimination is not Wal-Mart's only crime against its employees," writes Liza. The company is known for firing workers for union organisation, she says, adding that workers get told to punch out and keep working, even as managers stand by locked doors to ensure that employees didn't leave! "The company is starting to look much worse than Enron," laments the author. "Both companies are grim symbols of the greedy pursuit of profits at the expense of human beings, including their own employees."

It's not that nobody told the company of its shortcoming. "Every year throughout the 1990s, a group of nuns attended the company's shareholder meetings to call attention to sex and race discrimination," writes Liza. They demanded public disclosure of race and sex statistics at the company. An example of racial remark that the book talks of is a supervisor calling himself a "redneck," much to the chagrin of black and Hispanic fellow workers. Yet another instance of insensitivity to women colleagues is the fact that lunch meetings were held at Hooters restaurants where the `concept' is "women with big breasts, wearing very little clothing, serving men." A different store "hired a stripper to perform at the mandatory morning employee meeting, to celebrate a male store manager's birthday."

Well, those are potholes that our companies may watch for, but there are many lessons to learn too. For instance, Wal-Mart has "a commitment to the common man," as the author puts it. "A down-home, plain-speaking manner is adopted at the highest levels." The headquarters is "downright shabby-looking," she informs. "Many high-level officials have basement offices. Even executives must share hotel rooms when they travel, and bring their own pencils to meetings." However, a dream that got short-sold was Wal-Mart's promise of advancement. For, "the company constantly assures workers that Wal-Mart is a place of great opportunity and mobility, where hard work and sacrifice will be rewarded." The Dukes plaintiffs and many of the witnesses are people who believed intensely in the Wal-Mart culture, only to find that the rhetoric didn't work for women, comments Liza.

A question that the book poses is whether consumers will express their solidarity with the women in Wal-Mart, especially when "a customer saves 17-39 per cent by buying groceries at Wal-Mart rather than from a competitor." Liza cites a market research finding that women do care about a corporation's behaviour toward women, and that what they hear about a company can influence their buying habits.

Shakespeare said, "Women speak two languages one of which is verbal." The other language may turn out to be costly litigation when women's verbal messages are not paid heed to. Worthy read.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 19, 2005)
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