Wal-Mart… The Humanitarian?

Wal-Mart is a polarizing organization; it employs over 1.4 million people in the US (about 1% of the US population), but unfair labor practices have hurt their reputation.  Wal-Mart has made headlines for failing to pay overtime wages, locking nighttime employees in the store and opposing unionization of their workforce (Hsu).  How could this company be considered humanitarian if it doesn’t even treat its own employees well?  Like the other essays we have written, the answer isn’t laying on the surface.

What does it mean to be a humanitarian? David Rieff writes,

There is the humanitarian as noble caregiver, as dupe of power, as designated conscience, as revolutionary, as colonialist, as businessman, and perhaps even as mirror. There is humanitarianism as caring, as in Rwanda; humanitarianism as emancipation, as in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban; humanitarianism as liberation, as in the case of humanitarian support for the rebels of Southern Sudan; and humanitarian-ism as counterinsurgency, as it was in Vietnam and may yet be again in Afghanistan. All are possible; all have been true at times over the course of the past four decades. (Hopgood)

Humanitarianism is difficult to define because the very idea of humanitarian behavior has rapidly changed over the past decades.  Like good and evil, many people don’t agree on what being a humanitarian means today.  Was the US intervention in Iraq’s attack on Kuwait humanitarian? What about the recent Iraq War?  Personally, I believe being a humanitarian means helping others even if it is not in your best interest.


Stephen Hopgood writes that Wal-Mart is a bastion of neo-liberalism and is awful for the already underprivileged.  He notes, “…justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom; medieval Christian scholars added faith, hope, and charity. The virtues are to be admired and promoted as worthy of cultivation for their own sake. We admire, and esteem, people who manifest these virtues. Wal-Mart’s self-interested utilitarianism, as with that of type-2 technicians, has none of these virtues to it at all, and should be discouraged as mean-spirited and not worthy of respect” (Hopgood). While I understand his point, I don’t entirely agree with it.  Wal-Mart absolutely has a duty to treat its employees fairly; in this age of 24-hour media and social responsibility they ought to treat their employees beyond the bare minimum.  There is no question Wal-Mart has failed this test repeatedly in the past.  Wal-Mart is a publicly traded company, so its best interests are those that increase the value of the company and therefore the value their stockholders’ investments.  Hopgood writes that the company lacks many noteworthy virtues, but he doesn’t adequately address that Wal-Mart still pays the above the government set minimum wage and provides over 1.4 million jobs to US workers.  Wal-Mart’s low prices benefit low-wage earners the most (those most likely to qualify for government assistance).  The lowered food prices and other necessities enable shoppers to extend the value of their dollar.  However, none of these points can be irrefutably traced to acting in their consumer’s best interest.  Conversely, these prices were set to increase market share and volume sold, which in turn gives the company power over suppliers.


I don’t believe Wal-Mart is a humanitarian organization.  They have low prices, employ a large number of people and donate to charity, but none of these are because the company is acting in another’s best interest.  Wal-Mart is a publicly traded company; their duty is to shareholders.  If donating to charity increases their goodwill then they will do it to benefit the company first.  The broader question is “can corporations be humanitarians?”  I say they can be.  It would be easier for a privately run corporation that doesn’t have to answer to shareholders, but these organizations aren’t inherently incapable of being humanitarian.  Money donated to an INGO is the same for an individual or a corporation, but the motive behind the dollar is what currently separates the two.


Hopgood, Steven.   “Saying “No” to Wal-Mart? Money and Morality in Professional Humanitarianism”.  Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. 2008. Print.


Hsu, Tiffany. Two Activist Groups Accuse Wal-Mart of Unfair Labor Practices. The Los Angeles Times.  May 23, 2013. Web. June 25, 2013.


Klein, Ezra.  Has Wal-Mart Been Good or Bad? The Washington Post. Novemeber 24, 2012. Web. June 25, 2013.


Martinez, Elizabath and Garcia, Arnoldo.  What is Neoliberalism? A Brief Definition for Activists. National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Web.


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