Johann Hari: Beware the advance of the Wal-Martians

This is a corporation whose commitment to 'the lowest price possible' stop at nothing
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The world's largest corporation - Wal-Mart - snapped up one of Britain's leading supermarkets for more than £5bn back in 1999. At the time, there was panic among trade unionists, because Wal-Mart has been named as a serial abuser of workers' rights on its homepatch in the United States. Six years on, has it changed life for Britain's low-paid workers? Is the Wal-Mart model infectious?

Here are some snapshots of what this model inflicts on ordinary people in the Land of the Fee. The company has admitted locking workers in at night without a key, supposedly to stop theft. Some employees told The New York Times they were threatened with the sack if they used an emergency exit, and that when someone became ill, it could take hours to get medical help. There have been two decades of court judgments finding they discriminate against women. They pay poverty-level wages: at the time of the buy-out, they offered just £7000 a year for a full-time job. Oh, and they are described by Dick Cheney - everybody's favourite American - as "exemplifying the best things about our country".

This is a corporation whose commitment to "the lowest price possible" seems to stop at nothing: the country they would appear to most love working in is China, where trade unionists are punished with jail. In 2001, the National Labour Committee found that Wal-Mart was paying many suppressed workers seven pence an hour.

It continues today. Only last week, an American labour rights group filed a civil action on behalf of people toiling in the Wal-Mart supply chain, including a woman in Bangladesh who was forced to work seven days a week, from 7.45am to 10pm, for six months without a break. (The Walton family who own Wal-Mart are, mysteriously, the only exception to this corporate thrift: their personal fortune stands at more than £100bn).

Giovanna Holt worked at Asda for 10 years, and now organises its stores for the GMB - Britain's general union. She explains how Asda is being subject to slow Wal-Martisation: "The attitude has changed since they took over. Head office is tougher on managers and managers are tougher on staff. There is a constant pressure to push productivity beyond what's possible, to cut wages, to do more, more, more and that's why staff morale is at rock-bottom."

At first glance, however, a push for greater productivity hardly seems unreasonable. Isn't that what all good businesses should do, to guarantee lower prices for their customers? But look at how these "productivity savings" are made in your local store. There are dozens of small, simple hardships that can push life on the minimum wage over the edge from tough to unbearable for the women in green uniforms you hurry past on your way to the baked beans. There is evidence of a "crackdown" on toilet breaks and a slicing of employment benefits: higher pay rates for working weekends and Bank Holidays, for example, have been abolished. There is a growing culture of vaunting workers who choose not to take their allotted breaks and holiday time.

Sometimes, the "productivity gains" are more dangerous. In their Wigan store, for example, the men working in the storerooms were told to increase the number of back-breakingly heavy boxes they carry by 40 per cent an hour. This wasn't physically possible without risking a serious injury - but the management wanted them to proceed anyway. Only a strike by Wal-Mart's mortal enemy, the trade unions, saved these men from risking injury.

This is only the beginning. All Asda storeroom staff - and increasingly all storeroom staff in Britain, whoever they work for - are being fitted with electronic tagging equipment while they are at work.

This sounds like sci-fi, but it is already a reality for tens of thousands of British workers. When you arrive at work, you are handed either wearable computers that monitor your whereabouts, or earpieces that issue instructions verbally. Everything you do - from your urination to your next location - can be monitored until you leave 10 hours later.

At first, companies always justify these technologies as a way to increase efficiency, but Professor Michael Blakemore of Nottingham University warns in a detailed study that they can become quickly subject to "function creep". This is where the surveillance shifts from being a way of monitoring the stockroom - "move X to Y, please" - to being a way to harass the staff into never relaxing and never letting up - "Why are you standing still?" All the things that make boring jobs bearable - a touch of personal initiative, a chat with a colleague, a sneaky fag break - are stamped out.

One Asda storeroom worker - I'll call him Steve - explained to me what it is like to work in his battery chicken world: "It makes you feel humiliated. You are treated either like a slave or a child. During breaks we're not allowed to leave the building, and it's timed to make sure you don't take an extra two minutes. And, as compensation, they gave us a pay rise of £2.50 a month. Woo-hoo - don't spend it all at once! ... What will I do if all my longest-serving colleagues leave because they've finally had enough? It's hell in here."

So what can we do to stop the Wal-Martian advance? Nobody wants to return to the hideous parody of trade unions represented by Arthur Scargill, where union leaders were unelected, strikes imposed from the top without ballots, and workers extorted into joining up through the closed shop. But today - as global corporations exert a ferocious power - democratic trade unions have never been more necessary to prevent abuses. Fragmented individual workers complaining to their employers about lousy conditions can be ignored; collectively, they cannot. The likes of Wal-Mart know it too: when a store in Quebec became the first Wal-Mart to vote for full union recognition, they closed the store down completely as a fiscal punishment-beating to warn others across the world not to get any fancy ideas.

But Britain is in a unique position: Asda already had 20,000 union members when it was snapped up by its Big Brother, and they cannot legally be sacked. We have the only unionised chunk of the Wal-Mart Empire right here - and it is expanding, with workplace ballots coming up across the country. If you don't care whether you live in a society (and a world) where the poor are reduced to a mechanised, miserable rump, then you can safely shrug at this fact. The rest of us have to hope the fight-back against the Wal-Mart model is only just beginning.