Former Walmart boss grilled on 'hostility' to unions

The Walmart/Massmart merger continued before the Competition Tribunal on Monday as the unions continued to try to secure conditions or commitments from the retail giants.

A former vice-president of Walmart, consultant Andrew Bond took to the stand on Tuesday and faced a barrage of questions from Paul Kennedy, the advocate representing the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The other parties challenging the merger include Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu), the Department of Economic Development, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The majority of the questions related to Walmart’s perceived hostility to unions and the timeline of negotiations between the two parties.

Kennedy pointed to the fact that only 1,3-million of Walmart’s 2,1-million global workforce are not unionised and also that none of the American stores are unionised.

However Bond pointed out that only 5% of retail sector staff in the United States were unionised.

Kennedy also pointed out that only 30% of Walmart staffers in the UK were unionised, and continued to push Bond for a commitment that labour relations with the unions would not be changed, but none was forthcoming, with Bond insisting that Walmart will not dictate labour policy but leave it up to Massmart’s leadership.

Kennedy then took Bond through correspondence between the merging parties, attempting to show that Walmart had identified Massmart as their target a long time before it was announced in September 2010.

However Bond insisted that up until two weeks before the deal was announced to the media, Walmart had not made any decisions.

The hearing is expected to continue until Monday, when closing arguments will be heard by the tribunal.

The unions’ objections to the merger have been underscored by a number of affidavits filed by lawyers, academics and economic advisors from around the world, presenting anecdotal evidence of examples where the entrance of Walmart into a country has allegedly had a negative effect on small businesses and the labour force. Walmart and Massmart, on the other hand, argue that they will bring real competition, efficiency and job creation to South Africa.

Saccawu’s deputy secretary general, Noel Mbongwe, has said in affidavit that the governments of Norway, Sweden and Holland have all disinvested from Walmart because of the risk that they might be complicit in human rights violations if they did not. “International organisations such as Human Rights Watch and numerous academics and activists have reported on Walmart’s poor record as a global corporate citizen,” Mbongwe said.

Bond, the merging parties’ key witness, said in his own affidavit that Walmart serves customers more than 200-million times a week from 8 969 retail stores across 15 countries, had sales of $405-billion in the previous financial year and employed 2,1-million staff members, making it the world’s largest private employer.

He argued that an independently certified study found that Walmart saves the average American household $3 100 a year. “Customers in the US alone could have saved more than $21-billion in 2010 by purchasing the same categories of food at Walmart rather than other stores,” Bond has stated.

He has further argued that in Mexico, India and Chile more than 90% of products were sourced locally and in China this figure was 95%. He also argued that Walmart is a driver behind job creation, pointing to 17 000 new jobs created in Brazil, 14 500 in Mexico and 1 400 new jobs in Argentina.

In his affidavit, Bond says it is “premature” to predict what impact a merger would have on job creation in South Africa but stressed that it was expected to be “positive”.

He has categorically denied that Walmart’s business strategy forces suppliers to break labour laws and treat employees inhumanely. He also claims that many of the allegations made against Walmart in the witness statements are “unsubstantiated by empirical evidence, anecdotal, misleading, inaccurate or untrue”.

Lloyd Gedye

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