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Wal-Mart's worker problems do not end with Labor Department settlement

Wal-Mart has signed a corporate-wide settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor to improve health and safety in each of its 2,857 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores under federal jurisdiction, OSHA announced today.

This settlement resolves two enforcement cases that began in 2011 regarding safety and health practices and training related to trash compactors, cleaning chemicals, and hazard communication corporate-wide. The agreement details requirements for the Big Box Behemoth to implement, including ensuring that employees are trained on new procedures in a language, format and vocabulary they understand.

Okay, that’s a good start, but that only begins to address the concerns we have with how Wal-Mart treats its workers.

Consider:

While the Savings Superstore says that these temp workers – or as Wal-Mart euphemistically refers to them, “flexible associates” – are paid the same starting wage as other workers, we know the precarious position temporary workers are in. There is less accountability for temp workers’ safety and health, with the staffing agency and employer each pointing fingers. Temp workers are less likely to receive adequate training regarding workplace hazards and perform some of the most dangerous tasks. We also know that temp workers are less likely to report workplace hazards or injuries, largely because of a fear of retaliation. Overall, when compared to standard employees, temporary workers tend to be younger, less educated and disproportionally consist of minority workers, many of whom might be immigrant workers. Meanwhile, current Wal-Mart employees struggle to be scheduled for full-time work, as the corporation increasingly relies on short-term temporary, ahem, “flexible” labor.

  • Wal-Mart has put employees in harm’s way in an effort to lower costs and drive customers through the door. In fact, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death on Black Friday in 2008 as eager customers busted down the doors and ran for their bargains. (P.S. That worker killed? A temp worker.) 

In the wake of that senseless stampede that took a worker’s life, OSHA each year has reminded retailers to provide crowd control measures during major sales events.  Wal-Mart’s corporate-wide settlement with the Labor Department does not mention Black Friday protection, but it should.

  • Workplace safety is not only a concern for Wal-Mart’s U.S. workers.

 One of Wal-Mart’s now-former suppliers ordered blue jeans from a garment factory in Bangladesh. You might have heard of it. It’s called Rana Plaza (you know, that one with the catastrophic collapse earlier this year that killed more than 1,100 workers?). Then, after firing that supplier, Wal-Mart refused to sign an international Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh, which 70 other retailers jumped on board to endorse. Instead, Wal-Mart teamed with GAP to create its own Bangladesh safety plan. The problem? In theirs, companies are not legally bound to pay for the improvements and more of the burden falls on the Bangladeshi factory owners. It’s all about the honor system, right?

As you can see, Wal-Mart still has a ways to go to make us happy here at National COSH. But, yes, a corporate-wide settlement with the Labor Department is a good first step, we guess.

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