Three international workers discussed the alleged human rights abuses in Wal-Mart’s sweatshops and their hopes for change and restitution at a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Friday.
Sponsored by the International Labor Rights Fund, workers Flory Arevalo, Damaris Meza Guillen, and Stella Ines Orjuela are touring through the United States as part of an ongoing campaign to hold Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, accountable for what they allege are poor labor conditions at its supplier factories. At the tea, the three women argued before an audience of about 40 students and community members that Wal-Mart’s low prices come at the expense of international workers, who lack benefits, take home low wages and work long hours.
The first problem, the women said, is the strenuous production goals that Wal-Mart exacts on its supplier companies.
Stella Orjuela, who works for a Dole flower plantation in Colombia that sells to Wal-Mart, said she and her coworkers are forced to work for 15 hours a day in preparation for Valentine’s Day sales.
“We don’t have any time to spend with our families,” she said.
Guillen, a factory worker from Nicaragua, said Wal-Mart demands 20,000 products a week from her employer apparel company. As a result, the workers must labor for excessively long and difficult hours to meet product goals, she said.
Arevalos said workers at her factory in the Philippines are sometimes forced to work overtime, which can extend to 24 hours a day.
But despite the long hours, Guillen said employees are earning far less than what is necessary for their subsistence.
“The [company] cafeteria is too expensive for our wages, so we have to bring our own food,” she said.
Orjuela said her salary does not cover her family’s basic needs, and she makes only $157 a month, despite having four kids to feed.
All three women said their coworkers in the factories are often ill, and their employers refuse to provide health benefits or time off for doctor’s appointments. Sick workers are often fired, Arevalo said, so many work through illness just to keep their jobs. Workers must also deal with dirty facilities and strict, inhumane regulations, she said.
“We’re not allowed to go to the bathroom or get water during work hours,” Arevalo said.
Faced with a desperate situation, many workers have tried to form unions, but employers almost always refuse to recognize their efforts, Orjuela said.
“The employers say that we are just causing trouble,” Orjuela said, “and fired some of the union’s founders.”
Some students said they were impressed by the workers’ efforts and dedication to effecting change in their home countries.
“Awareness is a key approach towards addressing the problems of working conditions,” Chris Rhie ’07 said. “Americans today don’t have a firm grasp on how different conditions are for workers in other countries.”
But some students asking questions of the three women said they were skeptical that Wal-Mart would allow for terrible working conditions in its factories, if only because such conditions would hinder productivity.
“If students are interested, we can get you a job there for a week and see how you like it,” Guillen said in response. “We didn’t come here to tell lies.”
Sofy Solomon ’09 said she wanted to learn more about getting involved in the movement to improve global labor conditions.
“I wish they had given us more concrete ways that we could help the efforts to stop the exploitation of workers,” she said.
Though she Solomon said she was sympathetic to the workers’ stories, she questioned certain aspects of the women’s case against Wal-Mart.
“I was skeptical because they were obviously able to leave their jobs and still have them when they go back, so it can’t be that strict,” Solomon said. “That led me to question parts of their argument.”
In addition to sponsoring the tour, the ILRF has also provided legal representation for international workers who filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart in the California Superior Court last September, alleging that their employer is not meeting its contractual agreement to protect laborers’ basic human rights.