The New York Times today features a shocking story on night shift employees who are locked in at Walmart and its affiliated stores. (free registration required) In a work practice that seems like something out of a Dickens novel or a third world sweatshop, exits are locked at night under the guise of protecting workers. The article relates the story of one employee, Michael Rodriguez of Corpus Christi, TX, who waited hours to get help for a crushed ankle because all exits but the fire exit were locked, and there was no manager with a key. He had been led to believe that he and his supervisor would both be fired if he used the fire exit.
"The reason for Mr. Rodriguez's delayed trip to the hospital was a little-known Wal-Mart policy: the lock-in. For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers' wives have gone into labor."
Company spokespeople maintain the practice is to protect workers who work in high crime areas, but employees and other industry insiders say the practice is primarily to curtail "shrinkage" or theft.
It's boggling to know that such draconian work environments still exist in this country. A little over 12 years ago, 25 workers lost their lives while trying to kick down doors in a fiery inferno in a chicken processing plant in North Carolina. Yet the practice still persists, although one might think these would be isolated incidents rather than accepted policy in the world's most prominent retailer.
There is no more fundamental mandate than worker safety. Not only is protecting workers the right thing to do, it's usually the cheapest thing to do in terms of risk management.