Wal-Mart is wonderful?it brings us cheap consumer goods and plenty of them. While the store chain has meant the death of many mom-and-pop stores in the last few years, this is the way capitalism works?or is it? Some critics think that Wal-Mart is an unnecessary evil.

Andrew Gumbel writes in the Independent that with over three thousand stores, Wal-Mart is the biggest single private employer in the United States (the US government is the biggest employer, which is why we should be skeptical about politicians? cost-cutting promises). But the way a company is great also has to do with how it treats its employees, and Wal-Mart pays such low salaries that many of its workers have to go on welfare and food stamps in order to survive. Since our taxes support these services, it means that while we may be saving money on the goods we buy there, it is costing us tax money every time we shop.

46% of the children of employees’ children effectively have no health insurance, because the health insurance that Wal-Mart provides has a deductible so high that parents can’t afford to take their kids to the doctor. Instead, like most of the poor, they rely on local hospital emergency rooms, which is an inefficient waste of taxpayer dollars.

Now a documentary film has been produced by Robert Greenwald, titled Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. He points out the incredible influence this single franchise has in the US. It has more than 1.3 million employees and made $285 billion in 2004, giving it a larger gross national product than many countries. A small town with that contains a Wal-Mart (and most do) is truly a “company town.” But having a Wal-Mart nearby actually reduces the number of jobs, rather than increasing them. In fact, a new academic report says that a Wal-Mart store in a community reduces employment from 2 to 4 % and depresses local wages by 5%, because it drives out the weaker competition and the jobs that go with those smaller stores.

Wal-Mart has taken out life insurance policies on its low-wage hourly employees that pay benefits to the company when the workers die. A conspiracy-minded person might speculate that the company, which has a policy of hiring older people, is trying to work them to death.

Employees are locked inside stores until managers return in the morning, so they can?t shop lift. This eliminates the need to pay for supervisors, but could lead to a tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, in which hundreds of young seamstresses, who were locked inside, were force to either burn to death or jump to their deaths. While we today?s buildings have modern fire-suppression systems, like sprinklers, so this type of tragedy is not likely to happen, a sick employee who called an ambulance could have trouble getting to the hospital.

Art credit: http://www.freeimages.co.uk

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