Big discounts for Labor Day! Limited time offers! Unbeatable prices!
And crappy wages.
Welcome to Walmart, everyone, a retailer that prides itself on offering low prices to consumers but refuses to pay decent wages to its workers. Who wins from this schizophrenic approach? No one really, since the very workers who form the backbone of our consumer society can barely feed themselves, let alone buy housewares, electronics, DVDs, books, gardening tools, or anything else at any price, and so Walmart's business philosophy ultimately sucks out as much from our economy as it puts in.
As the nation's largest employer with 1.3 million workers and $15.8 billion in profits in 2012, Walmart occupies the unique position of being able to make a positive contribution to the lives of its workers and to our overall economy, and yet the company refuses to give up its exploitative ways. While the CEO of Walmart claims that the average hourly wage of its workers is $12.78, which is well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25, the majority of the company's workers with children still live below the poverty line and 30% of the company's workforce is designated as part-time, who can be denied benefits and are not included in the company average. More common wages in the company, such as for sales associates and cashiers, hover in the range of $8.50 an hour.
This does not include yet another category - temps, an even cheaper tier of labor through which the company ratchets down hours for both full-time and part-time employees (an unconscionable ploy that then enables the company to reduce its labor costs and in some cases deny health benefits). Temps now account for 10% of Walmart's workforce, having risen from 1-2% just last year.
In addition, Walmart regularly outsources manufacturing to countries where those products are often made in sweatshops and where workers toil in deplorable and even dangerous conditions (the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh is a glaring example of the company's indifference to the conditions in which their products are made). The company is also staunchly anti-union and has no qualms about threatening to fire employees or even close entire offices if workers try to form a union. That is not a surprise since union workers often make 13.6% or higher in wages and are more likely to receive health benefits than non-union ones.
And these are just some of the abuses that Walmart is or has been accused of. In the past, the company has settled multiple lawsuits and paid government fines over unpaid wages and forcing workers to work 'off the clock', including a $325 million settlement in 2008 involving 63 separate cases in 42 states, and last year, 2,000 women filed a complaint alleging discriminatory pay practices against the company. For a business so heavily dependent on labor, Walmart seems astonishingly tone-deaf to the needs of its workers.
Given all this, I find it not just bizarre but actually insulting when the company promotes a Labor Day Sale. But then again, maybe that too fits the narrative of Walmart perfectly, which is to exploit anything and anyone to boost its bottom line.
So here is my statement to Walmart and its CEO, Mike Duke: instead of offering consumers temporary discounts this Labor Day, how about offering your workers a better wage - a living wage - instead?
A recent calculation shows that it would take only 46 cents more per shopping trip for consumers to subsidize a substantial increase in the wages of workers. But those workers, when they are happy, are much more likely to serve your customers better and help you generate higher sales. And think of all the good press you will get for a change, which might entice more people to shop at your stores and even attract better workers to seek employment with you. So increasing wages would not just be the moral thing to do but a smart business decision as well.
Think about it, Mr. Duke. This Labor Day, Walmart could actually make a difference to itself and others, and it will cost you very little. Or you can spend millions on print and television ads for a Labor Day Sale that just insults labor and stay on the losing path that your company is on, until one day your workers just walk out and your customers desert you.
It's your choice.
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He has worked at leading investment banks and hedge funds, has appeared on CNBC's 'Closing Bell', Arise TV, and HuffPost Live on business topics, and is the author of two thriller novels, including "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit www.sanghoee.com