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 variety).
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.