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Walmart Chile: The Selfish Giant

by Bruno Sommer Catalán

Walmart, the largest chain of supermarkets in the world, is being confronted in Chile with an official collective bargaining agreement and in order not to give in to workers’ demands, it is using the threat of dismissals.

Worse still, the only concession it is offering is a wage adjustment of a mere 159 Chilean pesos, which equates to 31.8 US cent.

Walmart has been operating in the country since 2008 when it acquired shares in Distribución y Servicios (D&S) which has links with the Ibáñez family.

From then on it controlled, under the name of Walmart Chile, the Ekono, Hiper Lider, Lider Express supermarket chains and also a property development company that builds supermarkets which are subsequently leased to their own companies and the Acuenta supermarket chain.

It is these same Acuenta workers that are involved in the labour dispute. 1,500 workers that are calling for a wage adjustment of 8% on the consumer price index, an improvement in their basic working conditions such as a uniform, shift pay and structured working hours.

The company has responded with an increase of 31.88 US cent and threats that violate trade union freedom and workers’ rights.

The above is corroborated by the statements made by the manager of the Acuenta supermarket in Cerrillos, Jenny Contreras, who brandished the threat of arbitrary dismissals and layoffs when the workers began to organise and support the legal strike which will be put to a vote on Tuesday 30 July.

Equal Times met with Juan Carlos Zambrano from the Sindicato Interempresas Líder who told us that “we have set up this forum to defend our rights given that the company was resorting to multi-routing (subdivision of a company into smaller units), that Walmart Chile whittled down to 12”.

He went on to say that “in my opinion, it is a ridiculous offer, particularly as Walmart Chile reported profits in excess of 115,635 million pesos in 2012 (237 million US$), a 53% increase on 2011”.

Zambrano was clear “It is important to realise that the majority of these workers earn the minimum wage and live in extremely precarious conditions”.

Today the minimum wage in Chile is 193,000 (382 US dollars). If we compare this with other countries in the region, Argentina and Venezuela fare relatively “better”. Furthermore in Chile the average rent never falls below 120,000 pesos, while bread, milk and other basic consumer goods are taxed at 19%.

To voice their grievances and to publicise their labour demands, Walmart Chile workers decided to occupy the firm’s corporate offices in the Ciudad Empresarial commercial zone.

They occupied the premises armed with placards, whistles and drums and demonstrated peacefully and with dignity, calling for a legal collective bargaining agreement to be honoured.

However, the largest supermarket chain in the world with 3,668 retail outlets across Latin America, continues to turn a deaf ear.

The World Bank announced recently that as and from July, Chile will be classified as a high-income country, with an annual GDP of 22,655 US $ per inhabitant.

This figure is even more surprising when you consider that today, 50% of Chileans earn an average of 498 US$ per month. Gonzalo Durán, Economist from the Fundación Sol explained that our country “generates a huge amount of wealth but labour is greatly undervalued”.

The studies carried out by this Foundation based on ILO figures concerning the number of workers that bargain collectively and that enjoy the right to strike, make very interesting reading.

In Belgium 96 of workers bargain collectively, 90% in Uruguay, 88% in Sweden, 59% in Germany, 60% in Argentina but alarmingly only 8% in Chile (plus striker substitutions).

The workers at Walmart Chile want to make a difference, they are ready to fight for their labour rights but it will not be easy with the “Selfish Giant” as their opponent.


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