Mexican Teenagers Working Without Pay in Wal-Mart Stores

Newsweek has an article about Wal-Mart's use of "volunteers" to bag groceries in its Mexican superstores. They are teenagers who work for literally nothing. They depend on tips from customers to make money [bolds mine]:
Wal-Mart prides itself on cutting costs at home and abroad, and its Mexican operations are no exception. That approach has helped the Arkansas-based retail giant set a track record of spectacular success in the 16 years since it entered Mexico as a partner of the country’s then-leading retail-store chain. But some of the company’s practices have aroused concern among some officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that Wal-Mart is taking advantage of local customs to pinch pennies at a time when its Mexican operations have never been more profitable.

Wal-Mart is Mexico’s largest private-sector employer in the nation today, with nearly 150,000 local residents on its payroll. An additional 19,000 youngsters between the ages of 14 and 16 work after school in hundreds of Wal-Mart stores, mostly as grocery baggers, throughout Mexico—and none of them receives a red cent in wages or fringe benefits. The company doesn’t try to conceal this practice: its 62 Superama supermarkets display blue signs with white letters that tell shoppers: OUR VOLUNTEER PACKERS COLLECT NO SALARY, ONLY THE GRATUITY THAT YOU GIVE THEM. SUPERAMA THANKS YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING. The use of unsalaried youths is legal in Mexico because the kids are said to be “volunteering” their services to Wal-Mart and are therefore not subject to the requirements and regulations that would otherwise apply under the country’s labor laws. But some officials south of the U.S. border nonetheless view the practice as regrettable, if not downright exploitative. “These kids should receive a salary,” says Labor Undersecretary Patricia Espinosa Torres. “If you ask me, I don’t think these kids should be working, but there are cultural and social circumstances [in Mexico] rooted in poverty and scarcity.”

No kidding. And obviously that is why Wal-Mart gets away with doing this. Because they are dealing with people who have no viable choices.

Of course, there is no labor practice so heinous that some right-winger somewhere will not defend it. Stepping up to the plate, Dan Riehl [linked from Memeorandum] writes:
Bottom-line - Wal-Mart partnered with an existing Mexican chain which employed what is apparently a common practice in Mexico - volunteer teenage baggers that work for tips only. Because Wal-Mart has become so large in Mexico, it now apparently provides the bulk of pocket change for some number of teenage Mexicans who volunteer to get it. Not good enough says Newsweek and some pols. How dare they be successful and embrace existing practices within the culture.

There are too many poor people in Mexico, the article suggests. The answer? Raise prices so they can pay the baggers an actual wage. Has anyone asked the average consumer if they might not then prefer to bag their own groceries? Or has anyone stopped to ask why so many teens volunteer? And of course, they don't really suggest Wal-Mart should raise prices. If they had their way, Wal-Mart would do the right thing and simply give the stuff away.

Of course Dan ignores what the Newsweek article makes clear: that these "volunteer" baggers are working for tips out of desperate economic need, not a desire for "pocket change." And worries about customers bagging their own groceries does not seem to be an obstacle to paying American teenagers to bag groceries. Of course not. Because American teenagers have choices, and they also have legal protections.

When you take advantage of someone's misery or lack of power and choices to enrich yourself at his or her expense, you are exploiting, not helping, that person. That's what exploitation is.

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