A specter haunts the festive shopping season

 

Tomorrow, November 24, will mark seven months since the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing over a thousand garment workers, overwhelmingly women. Tomorrow, November 24, will also mark the one-year anniversary of the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in which over a hundred garment workers were killed. Almost all of those killed were women. These were not accidents but rather pieces of a plan in which the lives of women, of women workers, of Asian women workers count for less than nothing.

Today, a report notes that U.S. retailers have `declined’ to aid “factory victims in Bangladesh.” The phrase “factory victims” is both telling and apt. The women who died, often slowly and always terribly, were indeed victims of factory production. A year later, as inspectors and engineers begin for the first time ever to examine factory structures in Bangladesh, Wal-Mart, Sears, Children’s Place have “declined” to assist at all in any compensation or aid program for “factory victims”. In fact, as of yet, every U.S. retailer has “declined.” Corporations from elsewhere, such as the Anglo-Irish company Primark and the Dutch-German company C&A have been “deeply involved in getting long-term compensation funds off the ground.”

Across the globe, factory workers struggle with corporate exploitation. Factory workers in sectors, such as garment and textile, that are “reserved” for women workers struggle with super-exploitation. That is part of the tragic and the everyday of the garment industry. But this tale of “factory victims” is more particular. This is about U.S.-based corporate global development plans, in which women workers of color are not only worth less than the machines they work at. For Walmart, Sears, Children’s Place and their confreres, those women are worth less than the chairs on which they sit every day, producing goods and profits.

80% of Rana Plaza survivors are women. Now they find themselves in a situation more desperate than ever.”  That too is part of the plan. That were no accidents; there were massacres. Remember that on Monday, as we enter, again, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Remember the specter of “factory victims’ that haunts the end-of-year shopping seasons.

(Photo Credit 1:  IndustriALL) (Photo Credit 2: IndustriALL)

The Big Box Store

Betty Dukes, front, and co-plaintiffs

When my partner and I were on our honeymoon, in upstate New York, we were craving a set of playing cards. We drove around this big “small town” and saw a familiar sign: “Wal-Mart.”  Unperturbed, my partner drove right into the parking lot.  I told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going in and he wasn’t either.  He started laughing, but it died in his throat when he saw the scowl on my face.

In 2005, I assisted a law school professor on a paper she was writing on the issues of employment-based sex discrimination. My task was to read through hundreds of declarations by women who either worked or work at Wal-Mart as part of a class action suit against the world’s largest private sector employer and summarize each declaration.  These women not only had the courage and conviction to come forward, but many did at the expense of being chastised by their community.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes essentially destroys class actions against corporate America.  As a result, the most marginalized sector of the labor force – working-class to poor women-will suffer the most.

In rural and small town America, Wal-Mart is one of the biggest, if not only, sustainable employer. While reading the declarations, I learned of single moms who sustained a family of four.  Many of these women looked at Wal-Mart as a place to grow, to become educated, and create a better life for their family.  They thought the story of Sam Walton, an up-by-his-bootstraps narrative revered by Wal-Mart as the archetype of the American dream, would apply to them.  But theirs was a dream deferred, as they watched their male cohorts, who often worked the same amount of hours, obtain higher pay and quicker promotions.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the last vestiges of that dream may have vanished. True, the Court did not decide the substantive issue of whether Wal-Mart discriminated on the basis of gender. But by preventing women from forming a class, they eviscerated the only effective tool in confronting a corporation whose revenues dwarf the GDP of many small countries. Now, each individual class member will have to come forward and sue Wal-Mart (an unlikely scenario), or the 1.6 million women will need to create smaller classes based on commonality other than gender.  In the latter scenario, it is almost certain that this class too will be challenged, and challenged again, until the class is so small, making it not worth the money and effort.

Sadly, Monday’s decision follows a long history of rejecting gender as a potential class against corporations. Decisions like Wal-Mart urges us to think of how we cannot rely on the legal system to recognize bias in corporate structures. The power is up to the consumers, advocates, journalists, activists, artists to make Wal-Mart, and other corporations listen to their constituents.  So, we found playing cards in a locally run business a few blocks from the glowing Wal-Mart sign.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Above the Law) (Photo Credit 2: BusinessWomen)