Wal-Mart attacked for 'locking in' overnight workers at its stores

Wal-Mart, believed to be the world's largest retailer, is under fire for reportedly locking in overnight workers at many of its stores, sometimes to the detriment of their own safety.

The New York Times reported yesterday a number of cases in which employees were allegedly prevented from leaving a store when they were injured, unwell or, as in one case in Florida, when a hurricane struck the area.

Michael Rodriguez, who works at a Wal-Mart store in Texas and waited an hour for colleagues to free him from beneath fallen machinery as they searched for a key, said: "It isn't right. You could have been bleeding to death and they'll have you locked in."

Wal-Mart officials said a lock-in policy operated in some stores and had done for up to 15 years. But they said the stores were either in high crime areas or at risk of "shrinkage", a euphemism for theft by employees.

Nonetheless the latest charges can only tarnish Wal-Mart's image and strengthen its reputation as a company that combines sophisticated 21st-century retailing techniques with 19th-century-style treatment of its employees.

With 2002 sales of $245bn (£135.2bn), and employing more than 1.2 million people, Wal-Mart has grown from a small shop in Bentonville, northern Arkansas, to a global retail empire, with over 4,500 outlets.

These days, however, it is increasingly seen less as an American corporate legend and more as a pace-setter for a heartless new version of American capitalism. In the past few years the group has been embroiled in controversies ranging from complaints about poor pay and skimpy health care coverage for junior employees to allegations that it does not pay low-level workers for extra hours in lieu of time off.

Federal investigators have accused managers at some Wal-Mart stores of employing illegal immigrants in their maintenance and cleaning crews. Hundreds of illegal immigrants were arrested in raids on 60 outlets across the country. In California, a judge is deciding whether to allow a class-action suit for alleged discrimination by Wal-Mart against women.

Organised labour has long been upset by the group's resistance to the unionisation of its workforce, spurred, critics say, by Wal-Mart's determination to keep the cost of wages and benefits as low as possible.

The relentless rise of Wal-Mart and other large retailers is often held responsible for the decline and extinction of the small "mom and pop" store and the demise of traditional high streets across small town America.

The company either denies most of the charges or blames the breaches of regulation on "rogue" managers. It also believes that some of the complaints are born out of envy at Wal-Wart's success.

On the specific case of "lock-ins", a spokesman said that the employees who had urgently needed to leave a store could have used an emergency fire door.

But Mr Rodriguez and other workers said they were told that these doors could only be opened in case of fire. Use for any other reason could lead to an employee being reprimanded or dismissed.