Wal-Mart’s Other Sins

October 25th, 2012 by Phil Mattera

The job actions taking place at many Wal-Mart locations around the United States have brought new attention to the abysmal labor practices of the country’s largest private employer. More than any other company, Wal-Mart depends on low wages, meager benefits, overtime abuses and gender discrimination to keep its labor costs artificially low while quashing any efforts by workers to rectify those conditions.

Two weeks ago, I used this blog to recount Wal-Mart’s labor and employment track record. Here I want to remind readers of some of the company’s many sins outside the workplace, using information I assembled for the new 5,000-word Wal-Mart entry in my Corporate Rap Sheets series.

Corruption. Wal-Mart doesn’t seem to mind its hardline reputation on personnel matters, but it has tried to otherwise paint itself as a squeaky-clean operation. That image was shattered last spring, when the New York Times published an 8,000-word front-page exposé about moves by top management to thwart and ultimately shelve an investigation of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, focusing on extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials as part of an effort to increase Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico.

That story made a huge splash and reportedly undermined the company’s urban expansion efforts. A major public pension fund, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, sued the company for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the bribery scandal. It and other institutional investors showed their discontent with top management by opposing the official slate of directors at Wal-Mart’s annual meeting. About 12 percent of the shares outstanding were voted against the slate, an unprecedented level of dissent by the company’s previously quiescent shareholders. The company, apparently still trying to deal with the fallout, has just announced an overhaul of its compliance department.

State income tax avoidance. In 2007 the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story revealing that Wal-Mart was using a real estate gimmick to avoid paying many millions of dollars in state corporate income taxes each year. It was doing this by putting many of its stores under the ownership of a real estate investment trust (REIT) controlled by the company. The stores would pay rent to the captive REIT and deduct those payments as a business expense.

This trick, essentially paying rent to itself, reduced the company’s taxable income and thus lowered its state tax bill (the REIT was structured so its income wasn’t taxed by any state). A report by Citizens for Tax Justice estimated that Wal-Mart had thereby avoided some $2.3 billion in state income tax payments between 1999 and 2005–an average of more than $300 million a year.

Local property tax avoidance.  A 2007 report by my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First found that Wal-Mart has sought to reduce its property tax payments by frequently and aggressively challenging the assessed value attached to its U.S. stores and distribution centers by local officials.  The report examined a 10 percent random sample of the stores and found that such challenges had been filed for about one-third of them; an examination of all of the distribution centers found challenges at 40 percent, even though many of the latter had been granted property tax abatements when they were built.

Sales tax “skimming.” In a 2008 report by Good Jobs First entitled Skimming the Sales Tax, we found that Wal-Mart was receiving an estimated $60 million a year as a result of the little-known practice in some states of compensating retailers for collecting sales taxes and calculating the amount of that compensation based on total sales. This, in addition to the estimated $130 million in sales-tax-based economic development subsidies, means that Wal-Mart is depriving hard-pressed state and local governments of at least $73 million each year. This is just a small part of the more than $1.2 billion in state and local subsidies that Good Jobs First has documented on our website Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch.

Environmental violations. Wal-Mart has tried very hard in recent years to depict itself as a pioneer of sustainability by wide-ranging initiatives with regard to energy efficiency and the addition of organic foods and other green products to its shelves. Wal-Mart is largely silent about the environmental impact of the millions of customers who in most cases must still drive to the company’s retail outlets. It also wants us to forget that the company itself has had its share of environmental violations. For example, in 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Wal-Mart would pay a $3.1 million civil penalty and take remedial action to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with storm water runoff from two dozen company construction sites in nine states. The following year, the company agreed to pay $1.15 million to the state of Connecticut to settle a suit alleging that it had allowed rain water to carry fertilizer, pesticides and other harmful substances stored outside its retail outlets into rivers and streams. It also signed a consent decree with the EPA to resolve charges relating to diesel truck idling at its facilities.

Undocumented Workers. When talking about Wal-Mart it is difficult to avoid the workplace entirely. Aside from its mistreatment of its own employees, the company takes advantage of exploited contract workers. For example, in 2003 a federal racketeering suit was filed against Wal-Mart by lawyers seeking to represent thousands of janitors who cleaned company stores and were reported to be working seven days a week and not receiving overtime pay. The filing took place 18 days after federal agents raided 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states to round up about 250 janitors described as undocumented aliens. In 2005 Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle federal immigration charges. Documents later emerged suggesting that Wal-Mart executives knew that the company’s cleaning contractors were using undocumented immigrants.

“Dead Peasant” Insurance. Wal-Mart has not only worked people to death but also continued exploiting them after their demise. The mega-retailer is one of the large companies that engaged in the repugnant practice of secretly taking out life insurance on low-paid employees and making itself the beneficiary. The polite term for this is corporate-owned life insurance, though critics have labeled it “janitor’s insurance” or “dead peasant insurance.” In 2004 Wal-Mart settled one case brought in Houston for an undisclosed amount. Two years later it agreed to pay $5.1 million for a class action brought by the estates of former employees in Oklahoma, and in 2011 the company agreed to pay just over $2 million in a class-action suit filed in Florida.

The list could go on. In fact, it is difficult to find a form of corporate misconduct Wal-Mart has not exhibited. Yet it is probably the labor arena that counts the most in determining whether the company will be reined in. Support your local Wal-Mart “associates” in their efforts to stand up to the bully of Bentonville.

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