Wal-Mart, the world's largest discount retailer and owner of Asda supermarkets
in Britain, faced new legal difficulties yesterday as jurors in a California
court heard claims that the company denied employees lunch breaks and forced
them to work overtime without compensation.
The case being heard in an Oakland court has been brought on behalf
of 115,919 current and former Wal-Mart employees. Fred Furth, the lawyer for
the plaintiffs, said that for years most employees dared not ask management
about missed meal breaks. "Some of the braver ones did ask, and I'm going
to prove Wal-Mart ignored their pleas to hire more help," he said.
The trial comes at a time when the Arkansas-based company is already
grappling with some 40 different legal actions to do with its employment policies.
Most daunting is a pending class-action suit claiming the company routinely
paid female workers less than male workers.
Only last week, a workers' rights advocacy group, the International Labour
Rights Fund, said it filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles against Wal-Mart on behalf
of hundreds of workers abroad who wereexploited by companies supplying goods
to the retailer.
In that suit, Wal-Mart is accused of ignoring the abuse of workers in foreign
factories because of its desire to find cheap supplies. The company, like many
other retailers, has established its own code of conduct to guard against abuse.
Terry Collingsworth of the Labour Rights Fund said the case would be a test
of whether codes of conduct drafted by corporations such as Wal-Mart were "simply
public relations devices or whether they mean what they say". The suit
describes a woman in Bangladesh who worked from 7.45am to 10pm and was not given
a day off in six months.
In Quebec a government labour relations board found against Wal-Mart this week
for closing down a store outside the town of Jonquiere. The company said the
outlet was not profitable, but board members suggested the real reason was because
workers had successfully unionised there and Wal-Mart was not prepared to deal
with unionised employees. The company faces a large fine.
These legal entanglements amount to a public relations nightmare for Wal-Mart,
which in recent months has met resistance in trying to open in new locations,
notably in New York City and Los Angeles.