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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2005 02:59 pm

Monitoring Wal-Mart's monitors

Retailer fired inspector after he cited poor working conditions

Wal-Mart has been running splashy ads asserting that, far from being a global sweatshop profiteer, it’s a model employer that constantly monitors its worldwide network of factories to assure humane treatment of workers. Before swallowing that, you might want to hear from one of Wal-Mart’s own factory monitors.

James W. Lynn was recruited by the retailer, and he readily bought into what’s called “the Wal-Mart culture,” which, on paper, stresses honesty and openness. A hard and loyal worker, Lynn soon was assigned to monitor labor conditions at Wal-Mart’s Latin American suppliers.

He was shocked at what he found in factory after factory: padlocked fire exits, heat so extreme that workers passed out, unsafe drinking water, mandatory overtime, shorting of workers on wages, and many more blatant abuses. More shocking to him was that when he alerted Wal-Mart higher-ups, nothing happened.

Finally his chance to get action from the top came when Mike Duke, now Wal-Mart’s No. 2 honcho, visited the Latin American office. Lynn was called in and asked directly by Duke what grade he’d give the company for its labor conditions there. “A C-minus or D-plus,” Lynn bluntly told the roomful of startled executives. But, he added, all the violations could be corrected quickly with the support of headquarters.

Lynn did get quick action this time: He was fired shortly after Duke left. Wal-Mart claims that the firing came because Lynn was having an affair with a female colleague. Lynn flatly denies this, and so does the woman — even though Wal-Mart managers took her into an interrogation room and grilled her, banging their fists on the table and demanding that she say what they wanted to hear.

Trying to reverse his unjust firing, Lynn finally got a brief meeting with Duke, who told him: “You didn’t stick with our culture.”

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