- For the first time in history, demarcating the beginning
of the 21st century, the biggest company in the world was not an oil concern
or an automobile manufacturer, but Wal-Mart, a supermarket chain. The symbolic
value of this fact weighs as much as its crushing implications: it is the
"triumph" of the anonymous, the substitution of the traditional
way of acquiring what we need to feed ourselves, take care of our houses,
tools and even medicine, traditionally involving interpersonal relationships,
for a new one which is standardized, "mercantilized", and where
we know progressively less about who, where and how or under which conditions
what we buy is produced. Now, we can theoretically buy everything under
the same roof, and even though goods seem cheaper, which actually is an
illusion, the whole paradigm can end up being very expensive. To buy today
at Wal-Mart may mean losing one's own job or contributing to the loss of
somebody else's in your family or community sometime down the line.
- Wal-Mart's policy of low prices is maintained while there
are other places to shop in the same community. When the other shops go
under, not able to compete, nothing prevents Wal-Mart from raising their
prices, which the company invariably ends up doing. Wal-Mart has had a
devastating influence in those communities where it showed up, and according
to Wal-Mart Watch, an organization of citizens affected by the company's
policies, for every two jobs that are created when it moves into a community,
three are lost.
- Wal-Mart is 19th among the 100 most powerful economies
in the world - only 49 of which are now countries. Sam Walton's widow and
their four sons control 38 percent of its shares. In 2004 they were sixth
among the richest people in the world, with about 20 billion dollars each.
If Sam Walton was alive he would be twice as rich as Bill Gates, who is
number one on the list with 46 billion. Both are a clear expression of
the modern megamonopoly and the control that they exert over consumers.
These monopolies are of course intent on increasing their control. Wal-Mart,
it could be argued, has the biggest impact, as it sells such a wide range
of products and it wields tremendous power over suppliers - and politicians.
- It is the biggest chain of direct sales to the consumer
in North America. In the US it has over three thousand Wal-Mart stores
and 550 Sam's Club outfits. In Mexico it already possesses 54 percent of
the market, with 687 stores in 71 cities, including Wal-Mart, Sam's Club,
Bodegas Aurrera, Superama and Suburbia, aside from the restaurant chains
Vips, El Porton and Ragazzi. It already controls very large sectors of
the market in Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, Germany and Puerto Rico, and
its influence is on the rise in many others, Japan, for example.
- It is the biggest private employer in the United States
and Mexico. In the few decades it has been in existence it has accumulated
an amazing history of being sued for many reasons, including illegally
preventing the unionizing of its workers, and just about every other imaginable
violation of workers' rights: discrimination against the disabled, sexual
discrimination, child labor, lack of health care coverage, and unpaid overtime.
In the US 38 percent of its workers are without health care, and the salaries
it pays are, on average, 26 percent lower than the industry norm. In December
2003 there were 39 class action lawsuits pending against the company in
30 different states in the US for violations of overtime laws. In a round
up in October, 2003 the government found 250 undocumented foreign workers,
who of course were operating in even worse conditions. In June 2004 Wal-Mart
lost the largest class action lawsuit in history, where 1,600,000 women
proved that they suffered gender discrimination as employees of the company
- But the company's low prices are not based only in the
exploitation of its workers in the countries where it operates directly.
The prices are the direct result of the systematic use of "maquiladoras"
in conditions of extreme exploitation. A worker in one of these, located
in Bangladesh, told the Los Angeles Times in 2003 that her normal workday
was from 8 am to 3 am, 10 or 15 days in a row. This is what it took to
be able to survive given the wages she was getting paid. But in the same
article, the manager of the plant complained that they had to become even
more efficient, as Wal-Mart was threatening to move the production to China,
where it could obtain lower prices.
- Though absolutely terrible, labor exploitation is not
the only "Wal-Mart" effect. There are many others, including
the use of new technologies to track people's purchases even after leaving
the supermarket. Control seems to be the name of the game in the "Walmartization"
of the world.
- Feeding Big Brother.
- Supermarkets are the segment of the food chain that moves
the most capital. According to certain analysts their influence towers
over and could devour every other previous link in the chain, such as food
and beverage producers, distributors, and agricultural suppliers.and producers.
Whether they end up getting involved in these parts of the chain will depend
on the economics of the game, so that if it is cheaper to allow other companies
to compete amongst themselves, they will not get involved. The effect,
nevertheless, is the same: the concentration of control and power in fewer
and fewer hands. This is not limited to Wal-Mart but also includes other
giants such as Carrefour, Ahold, Costco or Tesco.
- But Wal-Mart stands out particularly because, besides
being the biggest company in the world, its income is four times that of
its largest competitor, and larger than the next four combined. Because
it is the biggest seller of food products on a global level it has tremendous
influence over what and how food gets produced. It's already dabbling,
for example, in agriculture by contract directly with the agricultural
producers. It also is third in sales in medicines.
- As if it was not enough to be such an economic power,
largely due to its growing monopoly, Wal-Mart is beginning, as mentioned
earlier, to utilize new technologies to obtain information over people's
buying patterns. It is already testing, in three cities in the US, the
substitution of bar codes for identification systems through radio frequency.
This is a "labeling" system utilizing an electronic chip, no
bigger than a grain of rice and potentially much smaller, containing information
about the product, which is transmitted wirelessly to a computer. This
chip is capable of storing much more information than the bar code. The
problem is that its signal follows the purchaser outside of the supermarket
doors. According to Wal-Mart, the consumer would have the choice of asking
at the checkout that the chip be turned off, except it has no plans to
advertise this possibility.
- It has already experimented using products from Gillete
and Procter & Gamble, and others such as Coca Cola, Kodak, Nestle and
- At the beginning of 2004 Wal-Mart told its 100 principal
suppliers that they would have to be ready to provide this technology in
- The system would start, at the beginning, only as a means
to track wholesale shipments, that is to say, not necessarily directly
related to the packaging that the consumer takes home. In November it announced
that the majority of suppliers, plus an extra 37 added to the original
list would be ready. It is now only a matter of time until the cost of
the chips goes down sufficiently before it is included in everything a
- In practice, this means, for example, that consumers
who register their credit cards on entering the store could conceivably
pay for their purchase without having to go through a cashier, as the products
would automatically register when exiting. But Wal-Mart and the others
using the technology would have exact information regarding who, what,
when, how much and where the products are used.
- Though Wal-Mart is not the only one testing the technology
- there's Tesco in Great Britain, and Metro, Carrefour and Home Depot in
other places, it is the biggest force behind its development. It is important
to know that the technology was first developed and implemented by the
US Defense Department.
- Orwell must be spinning in his grave. These tiny systems
of control, "little brothers", if you will, will go much further
than the Big Brother he envisioned.
- The paradigm of Walmartization towards a "happy
world" trumpeted by the transnational companies needs our ignorance
and passive indifference to succeed. Paradoxically, those remaining without
access to credit or debit cards - in other words, the majority of the planet's
inhabitants - will remain out of the reach of this control system. With
all its power, Wal-Mart and the transnational needs us to survive. We don't
- Silvia Ribeiro is an investigator with Grupo ETC.
- Translated from Spanish by Daniel Morduchowicz