Wal-Mart and the Chinese Earthquake: Cheap Help for A Cheap-Labor Country


Wal-Mart Stores has put out a press release
patting itself on the back for promising the equivalent of about
$430,000 for disaster relief and reconstruction for the area of China
hit by a massive earthquake this week. The gesture was laudable but the
amount was less than impressive.

After all, the giant retailer would be nowhere today without the
countless Chinese workers who toil in sweatshops so that American
consumers can be offered the cheap goods that are at the core of the
company's business model. Last year those largely Chinese-made goods
brought Wal-Mart profits of $12.7 billion, or about $1.4 million every
hour of every day. The $430,000 contribution thus represents less than
20 minutes of profit.

Wal-Mart also profits from Chinese consumers. The company operates more than 200 stores in
China (through joint ventures and minority-owned subsidiaries), several
of which have been shut down because of the tremblor. Wal-Mart was so
eager to operate stores in China that it agreed to let its employees
there be represented by unions (though of the government-dominated

Wal-Mart has a history
of using relatively inexpensive amounts of disaster relief to boost its
reputation. After Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005,
Wal-Mart maneuvered to get maximum exposure for its prompt delivery
of relief supplies. A fairly routine operation for a company possessing
the most advanced logistics infrastructure was seen as nearly
miraculous, given the ineptitude of federal and state public officials.

The company made an initial faux pas (quickly reversed) in
announcing that employees at its stores shut down by the storm would be
paid for only three days.
It also started out offering a measly $2 million in relief but soon
overcame its parsimonious instincts and upped the figure by $15 million, thereby winning wide praise. The wave of favorable coverage went on for several months, thanks at least in part to the efforts of
its army of p.r. operatives from Edelman and a conservative blogger who
was paid to tout Wal-Mart's hurricane work in the blogosphere.

Wal-Mart may have to part with more than $430,000 to get a similar public relations bonanza from China's suffering.


Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

AMP Section Name:Retail & Mega-Stores
  • 104 Globalization
  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 184 Labor

Stay Informed