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ISSUE 117 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/14/2003

Feds rollback on Wal-Mart

By Brenna Greenfield
Staff Writer

Friday, November 14, 2003

Having been raised in the Midwest, Wal-Mart looms large in my consciousness and has a distinct aura attached to its existence. Where else would I go to buy last-minute necessities, get a job in high school or go to select hair dye?

Wal-Mart has always been the place I think of as All-American: the healthy, wholesome purveyor of goods. There is the bouncy smiley-face who bops down prices in the T.V. advertisements. There are the old people benevolently employed by Corporate Headquarters to stand and greet shoppers. It is one of the few places where one can get knitting supplies. In a way, Wal-Mart represents one of the last bastions of the good old corner store.

Even the ads convey this friendly attitude. The models are not flashy or even well paid - they are the relatives of the people who work there, and they are identified by name. Including these names and relations personalize the models and do much to further Wal-Mart’s amiable atmosphere.

But has the store gone too far in extending its welcoming arms to those who should not find a safe haven there?

On Oct. 24, 300 illegal immigrants were arrested at Wal-Marts nationwide as they finished their night shift. This sting, aptly named “Operation Rollback,” highlights a growing phenomenon across the United States – the use of outside contractors to bring in workers as janitors and farm workers, among other things. Wal-Mart uses 100 third-party contractors to fill the cleaning positions in its stores nationwide. The higher-ups claim to know nothing about the hiring policies of the contractors, but a number of executives were subpoenaed at headquarters in Arkansas as part of the raid for allegedly being aware of the use of illegal immigrants.

Wal-Mart faces fines of $10,000 for each of its violations against U.S. immigration laws. However, the damage to its reputation will result in much steeper costs. The store prides itself on its high standards for employee treatment despite a strongly anti-union reputation. As one of the country’s largest retailers, it has an image to maintain.

The problem with using outside contractors is that many in their employee pool are illegal immigrants Is Wal-Mart doing these people a favor by allowing them to work at their store when they might otherwise be suffering in an impoverished, war-torn foreign land? Is the retailer helping eliminate world poverty one person at a time? Are these illegal immigrants happier here?

Hardly. The workers are lured to the United States by way of empty promises and stay on in unsanitary work conditions with expired tourist visas. Many are from Eastern Europe and Mexico, and their illegal status is used to justify below-market wages. Most people also realize that working the night shift week after week is not an enjoyable thing to do.

Wal-Mart is guilty of averting its eyes selectively, choosing to look the other way and let something slide because profits are paramount for big business. No worker eligibility checks or payroll responsibilities are enticing enough to convince the store to turn a blind eye to what can be considered a problem as pronounced as the sweat shop industry.

Incidentally, Wal-Mart has also been accused of stocking its shelves with products from those very same sweatshops. All this news makes me think seriously about shopping there again, regardless of the sweet ads and elderly greeters. But Wal-Mart is not the only store at fault; according tothe Metro West Daily News, there are as many as 10 million immigrants working illegally across the nation at this moment. Hopefully the immigrant raid will play a part in opening the eyes of the public, because ignoring things is not the admirable way to proceed. It is important to look beneath the surface and discover who is oiling the cogs that keep corporate America churning along smoothly. And hopefully there will come a day when, as shoppers sleep, there will be no exploited workers toiling away to make the already bloated lifestyle of the average American any easier.

Staff Writer Brenna Greenfield is a sophomore from Oakdale, Minn. She majors in French and psychology.

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