Many forces in the past generation have conspired against the American worker. But Walmart’s relentless drive for efficiency is at the very least a symbol of, and likely an accelerating factor in, the outsourcing of American jobs abroad and stagnating wages at home. And the company’s labor practices have garnered a lot of warranted criticism. As Fishman writes in The Wal-Mart Effect, it is the same tenacious pursuit of lower prices for its customers that has fostered a culture of neglect or even abuse of its workforce:
“From one side of the country to the other, there are dozens of lawsuits alleging that store managers routinely forced hourly employees to punch out at the time clock, then return to work, putting in hours of unpaid labor. Walmart recently settled a federal investigation of its use of hundreds of illegal aliens to clean its stores, making a record-setting payment to the federal government . . . A front-page story in the New York Times in 2004 revealed Walmart’s routine practice of locking employees inside about 10 percent of its stores overnight, a practice the company altered before the Times could publish its story.”
Walmart has made an effort in recent years to improve its labor practices. But its average hourly employee, working 40 hours a week, makes about $24,440 a year. It’s true that Walmart passes much of its savings on to customers, operating with a thin 3% margin. But the fact that the average full-time worker at the U.S.’s largest employer can’t support a family is illustrative of the tough times ahead for laborers.