Wal-Mart Circles Indian Markets, and Indians Push Back

Published on
by
In These Times

Wal-Mart Circles Indian Markets, and Indians Push Back

The marketplace has always been at the heart of India--exuberant bazaars brimming with local hawkers and traditional wares and foods. But the country’s old-fashioned markets may soon be eclipsed by the towering “free market” of globalization, as multinational superstores push the government to open the gates.

The India Cabinet wants to enable businesses with 51-percent foreign direct investment to enter India's retail sector--basically inviting in big box behemoths like Wal-Mart under the banner of efficiency and consumer choice. But many Indians aren’t buying it. This week, UNI Global Union reports that shops went on strike:

Over 50 million small traders across India have put down their shutters as part of strike action aimed at getting the India government to review its decision.

In Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, over 6000 traders have closed their shops. Over 100,000 wholesalers, retailers and small traders in Mumbai joined in the All-India strike action. Elsewhere in Maharashtra retailers did not open their shops and it was a similar story in Thane, Pune, Nagpur and other major cities and towns

Karthik Shekhar, who is coordinating UNI’s activities in India on FDI and multi-brand retail said, “Here in Delhi all the markets are closed and thousands are on the streets. They are strongly opposed to the Cabinet’s decision and are making feelings known, especially their distrust of Walmart.”

Head of UNI Commerce Alke Boessiger told In These Times:

UNI Global Union and its affiliated unions in India, which represent hundreds of thousands workers in the service sectors, are united in their opposition to the decision giving a green light to the multinationals without proper safeguards....

    We believe that the companies that respect global labour standards will continue to respect them in India.  But Walmart, and others who refuse to agree global standards, raise a serious concern that, absent the right controls, the unfettered entry of Walmart to the Indian market could have devastating effects upon numerous stakeholders.

The potential Wal-Martization of India isn’t the company’s first attempt to capture the world’s “emerging markets.” Wal-Mart has operated in China for years, ingeniously exploiting the Chinese both as a vast source of cheap manufacturing labor and as a vast market for cheap Wal-Mart products.

Last year South Africa was swept up in a similar controversy over Wal-Mart 's bid to set up shop through its African “partner” Massmart. In a major protest campaign, labor activists issued various conditions for access to South African consumers, including fair labor standards and a commitment to invest in “developing local agriculture, food processing and manufacturing.” Labor activists have also waged a legal challenge to the deal and pushed for stronger government guidelines for corporations to support local jobs and small businesses. Though Wal-Mart's economies of scale are hard for any struggling economy to resist, South Africans demonstrate that labor can leverage collective resistance against corporate hegemony.

The franchise’s Indian incarnation, Bharti-Walmart, faces a different political landscape. India doesn’t have the unique labor militancy of South Africa. Meanwhile it suffers from a threadbare supply-chain infrastructure, which provides an opening for multinationals to meet swelling consumer demand.

And some have hailed retail massification as a boon for India’s aspiring middle class--yes, the legions of consumers who hunger for brightly-lit aisles stuffed with every imaginable mass-produced good. The corporatization of India's retail sector may be an inevitable byproduct of its overall development agenda, based on frenzied modernization alongside harrowing social inequality.

But Wal-Mart’s reputation for eroding economic security for American workers provides an object lesson for poorer countries that are now driving toward western-style consumerism. (UNI notes Wal-Mart’s history of union-busting at U.S. stores as a sign that the company will be especially resistant on issues of workers’ rights in India).

So, if the expansion of multinational retailers is unavoidable in the global south, can civil society work to effectively regulate multinational retailers? UNI’s campaign parallels the actions of Wal-Mart watchdogs in the U.S., which focus on monitoring labor practices and raising communities' awareness of corporate misdeeds. There’s an acknowledgement that even if the big box hegemony can’t be dismantled altogether, activists can still agitate to hold the company accountable wherever it operates and limit its economic grasp.

Jennifer Stapleton of the United Food and Commercial Workers' Making Change at Walmart campaign told ITT that the countries that Wal-Mart is currently stalking ought to look at how workers have fared in the country of origin:

Walmart already has a history of exploiting workers around the world, including the United States, China, and Mexico. The company also has a record of putting smaller companies out of business and generally wrecking havoc on local economies....

The Indian government should reevaluate their decision to allow Walmart to do business in their country. At the very least, the parliament needs to pass enforceable standards that will safeguard workers, small business owners, and the environment. Simply allowing Walmart to operate as it has in other countries is unacceptable.

In recent years the Indian economy has become famous for leapfrogging ahead in the “development” race, capitalizing on the newest technologies as well as a massive cheap labor supply. Now, as mega-retail closes in on India's markets, workers, local shopkeepers, and community groups can try to get ahead of the game in a different way: using the hindsight of Wal-Mart’s legacy around the world to ensure that the worst excesses of globalization stop at India’s doorstep.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

More in: