THERE is no Walmart in Boston, one of the biggest cities in the US. The Boston City Council refuses to allow the retail giant to set up shop in the city. In fact, Boston is among a number of US cities that will not allow Walmart to open up one of its huge stores in their areas of jurisdiction. These cities included, until recently, Chicago, the third-biggest city in the US. Walmart opened its first store in Chicago, President Barack Obama's hometown, in September. The opening came despite years of opposition led by trade unions.
In Boston, opposition to Walmart's attempts to gain entry into the city is led by a diverse coalition of people and organisations. These range from Thomas Menino, the city's mayor, community groups and small shopkeepers to trade unions. According to journalist Jessica Fargen of the Boston Herald, Menino says his opposition is in response to Walmart's low wages, record of discriminating against female employees and, most important, the threat posed by Walmart to small family-owned stores in the city.
Menino said the following to the Boston Herald last week: "We do not welcome businesses that mistreat employees and have depressed wages. Every place they have gone, the areas around them have lost jobs. You might gain jobs in the four walls of Walmart, but the surrounding neighbourhoods lose out. So, where's the win?" In case you are wondering, Menino, a Democrat, is no unkempt and fire-eating rabble-rouser. He is, in fact, a moderate and respected member of America's political establishment.
Menino is not alone in his opposition. He is also not without reason. According to a study cited by Haley House, a not-for-profit agency that runs a restaurant and serves poor people in Boston, the median income of a Walmart employee in the US is about $12000 a year. That is less than half the national median. In addition to that, Walmart offers generally substandard health and insurance benefits. A second study cited by Haley House said that small towns lost about 47% of their trade after 10 years of a Walmart opening nearby. The study was conducted in Iowa, in the US Midwest.
Yet another study, also cited by Haley House, found that when Walmart moved into a neighbourhood, wages in the community dropped about 5% for all workers - not just those in retail.
While there was a net gain of 100 jobs in Walmart's first year of operation in an area, about 50 jobs disappeared over the next five years as other retail shops shut down.
In addition, about 20 wholesale jobs also disappeared as wholesalers in the affected area succumbed to Walmart's much-vaunted system of vertical integration, meaning the company's ability to control the production process so that it can increase its power in the market.
These, then, are just some of the reasons ordinary folks from diverse class and community backgrounds in Boston are opposed to Walmart coming into the city.
Like most cities in the US, the city needs jobs. But city leaders and activists know from experience that not every company coming into the city promising jobs is an economic saviour. The people opposed to Walmart in Boston would rather have a company that pays fair wages and offers decent benefits than one that peddles cheap merchandise made in China.
Don't feel sorry for Walmart, though. The company, which has been eyeing a spot in a poor neighbourhood of Boston called Dorchester for its location, has been donating money left, right and centre to community organisations in the area, in the hope that its largesse will win it favour with the locals. But let us not call that bribery. As Steve Restivo, a Walmart spokesman, told the Boston Herald: "We're finding that the more people learn FACTS about the company, the more they see the value in bringing a Walmart store to their community." If successful, Walmart's plans in Boston would lead to the closure of Tropical Foods, the only grocer in the area and a shop geared towards the needs of the area's immigrant communities.
Why does the story of Boston's opposition to Walmart matter? Why should South Africans know about what is going on in the US? It matters and South Africans need to know about it because there is a lot of ignorance out there. The folks opposed to Walmart's entry into SA are not some Luddites opposed to progress. They are not some idiots beholden to outdated ideologies best kept in the proverbial dustbin of history. God knows, SA needs jobs. God knows, the country needs as much investment as it can get. But not all jobs and not all investments are the panacea some pretend they are.
I know that some people are fond of the adage that the only thing worse than being exploited is not to be exploited at all. The adage works rhetorically. It does not work in real life. It does not work in a country such as SA, where many poor people can't even afford the price of their own dignity.
. Dlamini is a freelance writer.