NEW YORK -- Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT) exploitation of weak U.S. labor laws interferes with workers' rights to organize and violates the human rights of its employees, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, an independent nongovernment organization.
In a 210-page report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said Wal-Mart uses an arsenal of sophisticated tactics -- some of which it says are illegal -- aimed at thwarting union organization and creating a climate of fear for its 1.3 million U.S. workers.
The Human Rights Watch study was based on interviews with 41 current and former Wal-Mart workers, managers, labor lawyers and union organizers between 2004 and early 2007. The organization also said it analyzed cases against Wal-Mart charging the company with violating U.S. labor and employment laws.
While Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is not alone in engaging in illegal anti-union tactics, the retailer "stands out for the extreme sophistication and aggressiveness of its anti-union strategies," said Carol Pier, senior researcher on labor rights and trade for Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
Pier noted that while Human Rights Watch had been following reports on Wal-Mart's anti-union efforts, what was missing from the debate was a "human rights analysis" and a roadmap to its systematic approach. With Wal-Mart being the largest private employer in the States, Pier noted that "the company's treatment of its workers has significant impact in the U.S. and beyond." She emphasized that the report was not funded by labor unions and the group is not an anti-Wal-Mart organization.
But Wal-Mart was quick to dismiss the study's allegations as untrue and unsubstantiated.
"Wal-Mart provides an environment of open communications and gives our associates every opportunity to express their ideas, comments and concerns," said David Tovar, a spokesman at Wal-Mart, in a statement. "It is because of our efforts to foster such an environment that our associates have repeatedly rejected unionization attempts."
He continued, "Wal-Mart respects our associates' right to a free and fair unionization vote through a private, government-supervised process and we remain committed to compliance with U.S. laws regarding workers' rights to unionize."
Tovar added that less than 5 percent of all retail workers in the United States are part of a union, so the current trend is not unique to Wal-Mart.
In a statement, Justin Hakes, legal information director at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit group, called the study "the latest tactic in the aggressive efforts by union officials to force union affiliation on Wal-Mart's work force."
Human Rights Watch is using the report to call on Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The EFCA -- which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March and is now under consideration in the Senate -- increases penalties for labor law violations. The legislation also would restore what the group calls a "democratic" union selection process by requiring employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign cards showing their support. Currently, employers can force union elections and then intimidate workers with their aggressive anti-union message during the campaign period, Human Rights Watch said.
Unions have been trying to organize Wal-Mart for years, but after failing in several attempts to represent workers at individual Wal-Mart stores, union-backed groups like WakeUpWal-Mart.com have emerged to embrace a broader strategy that goes beyond its employees and aims to get the retailer to improve its wages, health care benefits, environmental record and to be a better neighbor.
According to Human Rights Watch, Wal-Mart uses training sessions, videos and other means to indoctrinate its employees on the negatives of joining a union, tactics that the group says starts on the day employees start their job. The company also gives explicit instructions to managers on how to prevent union formation, according to the report. The report said that Wal-Mart generally responds within a few days to workers organizing by dispatching from headquarters members of its Labor Relations Team.
According to Pier, Wal-Mart engages in illegal tactics such as restricting the dissemination of pro-union views and firing workers for their union activity, in extreme cases. According to former workers and managers at one store, Wal-Mart ordered the repositioning of surveillance cameras to monitor union supporters.