Tag Archives: Wal-Mart

Shrimp slaves wait for justice 8 months after Thai raid

Nearly eight months ago, migrant worker Tin Nyo Win thought he was doing the right thing — the only thing — to help free his pregnant wife from slavery inside a Thai shrimp peeling shed. He ran for help and prompted police to raid the business, freeing nearly 100 Burmese laborers, including child slaves.

Yet the couple ended up first in jail and then held inside a government shelter, even though they were victims of trafficking. That’s where they remain today with a few other workers from the Gig Peeling Factory, waiting to testify in a slow-moving court case while their former employers are free on bail. Angry and frustrated, they just want to go home.

“I feel like I’ve been victimized three times. Once in the shrimp shed, the second time in … jail and now again in the shelter,” Tin Nyo Win said on a mobile phone smuggled in by another Burmese worker.

“Even prisoners know how many years or months they will be in prison, but we don’t know anything about how many years or months we’ll be stuck here,” he added. “It’s worse than prison.”

Recently, Thailand was lifted off the U.S. State Department’s blacklist, where it had been listed for the past two years as one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders alongside North Korea, Syria, Iran and others. Some activists saw the upgrade as a political move by Washington to appease an ally, and 21 labor, anti-trafficking and environmental groups expressed their disappointment in an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Thai government lobbied hard ahead of the announcement, saying new laws have been passed to help protect victims. The government also said that 241 human traffickers were sentenced in 2015, and 34 officials are facing prosecution for involvement or complicity in the trade.

But critics say low-level people or brokers from other countries are typically the ones jailed instead of Thai business owners, corrupt police or high-ranking officials.

“Debt bondage for migrants is still the norm, and police abuse and extortion happens on a daily basis all over the country,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. “While it’s good that prosecutions are going up, the reality is that we’re still talking about the tip of the iceberg here.”

The country has been under international pressure to clean up its $7 billion annual seafood export industry, including the threat of a seafood import ban from the European Union. An Associated Press investigation last year uncovered a slave island with migrant fishermen locked in a cage and buried under fake Thai names. The reporting, which led to more than 2,000 men being freed, followed the slave-caught seafood to Thailand and on to American dinner tables.

The investigation also focused on the Gig Peeling shed in Samut Sakhon, just outside of Bangkok, where Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were forced to work 16 hours a day. They had to rip the guts, heads and tails off shrimp that entered supply chains feeding some of America’s biggest companies, including Red Lobster, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and most major U.S. supermarkets. Many companies have said they are taking steps to prevent labor abuses.

Col. Prasert Siriphanapitat, the Samut Sakhon deputy police commander, said witness testimony began in April in the Gig shed case against three Thai defendants and two Burmese brokers. Only one Burmese suspect has been located. He added that new laws mandate quick prosecution of human trafficking, meaning the Gig case will likely be closed by the end of the year. But Tin Nyo Win said he and his wife have not spoken to a prosecutor or been informed about the case’s progress.

Suwalee Jaiharn, director of the country’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons division, said Thailand’s eight shelters are there to protect undocumented workers and denied that those housed inside are prohibited from leaving. She added, however, that some victims of trafficking are more closely monitored if they are expected to testify in criminal cases.

“We are protection centers and not detention centers,” she said. “There is an exception when some victims are witnesses in human trafficking cases. We have to give them extra protection.”

Suwalee said Thailand’s laws allow victims to testify ahead of their trials so they can go home quickly, or stay and work in the country. But aid workers said these options are rarely made available to migrant workers, leaving victims to wait in facilities far from home.

“Somebody’s always ordering you, and you are always under watch by someone and having to get permission all the time. This is totally what trafficking victims would have gone through while they were being trafficked,” said Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw, senior case adviser at the Bangkok-based nonprofit Project Issara, which assists trafficking victims. “It is very difficult for them to feel empowered and like their needs are being met.”

For the first few months that Tin Nyo Win and Mi San were in the shelter, they said they were not allowed to have a phone. They couldn’t leave the shelter unaccompanied. They couldn’t work.

“If victims see that when they come forward they are kept in government shelters but not given freedom to work and move around, then what incentive do they have to come forward?” said Susan Coppedge, the U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador.

Following a supervised interview with AP at the shelter, Tin Nyo Win spoke candidly on a call. He said restrictions eased a couple of months ago, and victims can now have a phone and go outside the compound unsupervised. However, only eight people from the Gig case are still in the shelter, after 12 undocumented workers ran away. Those who remain worry they will never be compensated for unpaid wages and the abuses they suffered.

“My sister is in another shelter. She is 17 years old, and we have no chance to see each other. I’ve asked permission to see her many times, but I’m not allowed,” said Hkin Tet Mun, 31, adding that phone calls to her sibling are also prohibited. “I’m worried about her, and my sister wants to stay with me.”

Win Kai, 19, said he’s also desperate to leave, but feels trapped.

“My family is so worried about me,” he said by phone. “I don’t want to stay in the shelter. Can you help me quickly?”

Tin Nyo Win’s wife, now seven months pregnant, rubs the growing bump under her bright flowered shirt. She yearns to have the baby at home. But her husband says he won’t go — even if it means missing the birth of his child.

“We want to show the boss that we are really victims, and we want to show this to the court,” he said. “We want to see justice carried out.”

After firing, popular Wal-Mart checker becomes star

A month ago, Frank Swanson was a checker, pretty much a lifer, at Wal-Mart in West Plains, Missouri.

He’s 52, disabled and long known for smiles and hugs. Shoppers loved him. They would purposely get in his line because they wanted to visit with Frank.

But then came April 2, the day of the gallon jug of Red Diamond Sweet Tea and the end of Frank the checkout guy.

Turned out all those hugs and a keen memory for grocery prices made for a volatile cocktail. At least in the way the big-box corporate world played out in this small Ozarks town.

Frank got fired that day. Since then, 800 or so people have attended a rally for him in the store’s parking lot, his name has bounced around social media all over the world, somebody held up a sign with Frank’s name at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, and Jimmy Fallon gave him a shoutout on “The Tonight Show.”

Frank’s termination could be headed to court, and Wal-Mart had to issue a statement explaining to West Plains what happened to the town’s favorite checker.

All this because a woman in Frank’s line that day wanted to buy a gallon of the sweet tea. She told Frank a store in a neighboring town had a sale price that Wal-Mart was supposed to match.

She didn’t have the ad, as required, but she didn’t need it with Frank. He’d always made it a point to keep up with prices at other stores, so he let her have it at the sale price.

That got Frank called in and fired after nearly 20 years.

“The bosses said I made up an imaginary price,” he said.

Frank went to Willow Springs and got an issue of a local paper that showed he was right about the price of tea.

For the record, the other store had the tea on special for $1.98. Wal-Mart’s price: $2.78.

Frank has always had a knack for remembering things. Like the day as a boy when he fell out the back of his grandpa’s pickup after cutting a load of firewood. He suffered paralysis and brain damage.

“Sometimes grandpa would go slow, and sometimes he would go fast,” Frank said.

He said he had stopped hugging customers after he was told to do so. But then people asked if they could hug him.

Wal-Mart issued this statement about Frank:

“Letting an associate go is never easy. It is important to note that we have a progressive discipline policy where performance issues move an associate to the next step. For this associate, point-of-sale policies had not been followed in some instances. A recent violation of those policies moved the associate to the final step of our discipline process, resulting in his dismissal.”

That didn’t satisfy Frank’s fans. They started a Facebook page called “Hugs for Frank” that encouraged people to flood Wal-Mart headquarters in nearby Bentonville, Arkansas, with complaints.

Various accounts had people talking about how Frank cheered their days. One story told how Frank was known to reach into his own pocket to help somebody who came up short.

“They were lucky to have you, Frank,” a woman wrote. “More people should be like you, but sadly, it’s all about the almighty dollar instead of the people. I wish you the very best!! (( HUGS )))

Another: “Hugs for Frank and he needs his job back and the Walmart head bosses need to be fired. He needs his job back and Sam Walmart (Walton) wouldn’t of fired him.”

Frank didn’t want ugliness. He told people that the workers at Wal-Mart — bosses, too — were his friends, and he didn’t want to hear anything mean about them. He has even shopped there since.

So the town threw a party for him. Music, food and, of course, a lot of hugs. Frank signed T-shirts.

On a YouTube video of the event, his brother said most people’s legacies aren’t known until they die.

“Frank can see his today,” Drexel Swanson said.

Customers came from all over. There’s just something about a guy who knew to never put ice cream and sugar in the same bag.

“Makes the sugar hard,” Frank said.

Springfield lawyer Benjamin Stringer said Frank intends to challenge his termination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which prevents employers from discriminating against or firing employees because of disabilities.

Frank must first file a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which will conduct an investigation into Frank’s allegations. Then, if issued a “right-to-sue” letter, Frank intends to pursue the matter vigorously, Stringer said.

“Frank was singled out and fired without cause,” Stringer said.

Meanwhile, Frank has a new job at Ramey supermarket, a couple of miles away. He doesn’t make as much there, but he’s happy. His new bosses like him to be up front to greet people when they come through the door.

So while West Plains may claim Dick Van Dyke, Porter Wagoner and baseball pitcher Preacher Roe, right now the big name in town is Frank Swanson.

“Everybody’s been picking on me about being famous,” he said shyly.

One of the many recent comments written about him said: “Went to Ramey’s twice today, and yep got me a hug from Frank. He has made everyone smile. I think he got more hugs this past month than he ever had. lol.”

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Kansas City Star.

Did slaves peel your frozen shrimp? A guide to the issue and what to do

Enslaved migrant workers and children are ripping the heads, tails, shells and guts off shrimp at processing factories in Thailand, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.

AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp going from one peeling shed to major Thai exporting companies. Then, using U.S. customs records and Thai industry reports, they tracked it globally. They also traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier, and interviewed more than two dozen workers from both sites.

U.S. customs records show the farmed shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden. AP reporters in all 50 states went shopping and found related brands in more than 150 stores across America.

The businesses that responded condemned the practices that lead to labor abuse, and many said they were launching investigations.

Q: How do I know if my shrimp or other seafood is tainted by labor abuses?

A: That’s a big part of the problem. Most companies do not make their supply chains public. And even if they did, there are many places for abuses to occur that are not documented or take place far from any type of scrutiny. For example, slaves have been forced to work on boats catching trash fish used for feed at shrimp farms, and migrants have been brought across borders illegally and taken straight to shrimp sheds where they are locked inside and forced to peel. Fishing boats are going farther and farther from shore, sometimes not docking for months or years at a time, creating floating prisons.

Q: What shrimp brands and companies did the AP find linked to tainted supply chains in its investigation?

A: Cape Gourmet; Certifresh; Chef’s Net; Chicken of the Sea; Chico; CoCo; Darden (owner of Olive Garden Italian Kitchen, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze Island Grille, Seasons 52 Fresh Grill, The Capital Grille, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood and Yard House); Delicasea; Fancy Feast cat food; Farm Best; Fisherman’s Wharf; Winn-Dixie; Fishmarket; Great American; Great Atlantic; Great Catch; Harbor Banks; KPF; Market Basket; Master Catch; Neptune; Portico; Publix; Red Lobster; Royal Tiger; Royal White; Sea Best; Sea Queen; Stater Bros.; Supreme Choice; Tastee Choice; Wal-Mart; Waterfront Bistro; Wellness canned cat food; Whole Catch; Wholey; Xcellent.

Q: AP reporters visited supermarkets chosen at random in all 50 states. Where did they find shrimp linked to tainted supply chains in its investigation?

A: Acme Markets; Albertsons; Aldi; Bi-Lo; Carrs-Safeway; Cash Wise; Crest Foods; Cub Foods; D’Agostino Supermarket; Dan’s Supermarket; Dollar General; Edwards Food Giant; Family Dollar; Foodland; Fred Meyer; Giant Eagle; Harris-Teeter; H-E-B; Hy-Vee; Jerry’s Foods; Jewel-Osco; Jons International Marketplace; Kroger; Lowes Foods; Mariano’s; Market Basket; Marsh Supermarkets; Martin’s Super Markets; McDade’s Market; Pavilions; Petco; Piggly Wiggly; Price Chopper; Publix; Ralphs; Randall’s Food Market; Redner’s Warehouse Markets; Russ’s Market; Safeway; Save Mart; Schnucks; Shaws; ShopRite; Smart & Final; Sprouts Farmers Market; Stater Bros.; Stop & Shop; Sunshine Foods; Target; Van’s Thriftway; Vons; Wal-Mart; Whole Foods; Winn-Dixie.

Q: Thailand has been in the news a lot lately with problems linked to human trafficking in its seafood industry. Why is this still an issue?

A: Thailand is one of the world’s biggest seafood exporters, and relies heavily on migrant workers from poor neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. These laborers often are misled by brokers in their home countries and illegally brought to Thailand with promises of good-paying jobs. They are then sold onto fishing boats or put into seafood processing plants where they become trapped and forced to work long hours for little or no money. Thailand has repeatedly vowed to crack down on the abuses. It has created new laws and is helping to register undocumented workers, but arrests and prosecutions are still rare.

Q: What are buyers and governments doing to try to stop slave-tainted seafood from reaching their countries?

A: The U.S. State Department has blacklisted Thailand for the past two years for its dismal human rights record, placing it among the world’s worst offenders such as North Korea and Syria. However, it has not issued sanctions. The European Union put out a “yellow card” warning earlier this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban on products. Companies such as Nestle have vowed to force change after conducting their own audits and finding that their Thai suppliers were abusing and enslaving workers. Others are working with rights groups to monitor their supply chains and ensure laborers are treated fairly and humanely.

Wal-Mart’s push on animal welfare hailed as game changer

UPDATED: Walmart, the nation’s largest food retailer, announced in May its commitment to improving animal welfare throughout its supply chain and issued revised animal welfare policies hailed as game-changing.

Even some of the company’s harshest critics, including the watchdog group Mercy for Animals, cheered the policy change as signaling a new era.

The “Position on Farm Animal Welfare” posted on Walmart’s corporate site states, “We expect that our suppliers will not tolerate animal abuse of any kind.”

The statement says Walmart supports the “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare outlined by the World Organization for Animal Health:

• Freedom from hunger and thirst.

• Freedom from discomfort.

• Freedom from pain, injury or disease.

• Freedom to express normal behavior.

• Freedom from fear and distress.

The company wants suppliers of fresh and frozen meat, deli, dairy and eggs to take action against animal abuse, adopt the “Five Freedoms,” avoid subjecting animals to painful procedures, such as tail docking, de-horning and castration, and to use antibiotics only to treat or prevent disease.

Walmart also wants suppliers to stop using pig gestations crates and other housing that confines animals to small spaces.

At the Humane Society of the United States, president and CEO Wayne Pacelle said, “Timelines aside, this announcement helps create an economy where no agribusiness company — for business reasons alone — should ever again install a new battery cage, gestation crate or veal crate. Walmart is helping drive the transition away from immobilizing cages and other inhumane practices and toward a more humane, more sustainable approach to production agriculture.”

He continued, “This is an unstoppable trend and that was the trajectory even before Walmart made the announcement. The company’s embrace of a more ethical framework for the treatment of all farm animals serves as perhaps the most powerful catalyst for change throughout animal agriculture.”

Mercy for Animals president Nathan Runkle said, “This is a historic and landmark day for the protection of farmed animals in America.”

Mercy has waged a multi-year campaign against Walmart — the company accounts for about 25 percent of the U.S. food business. The Mercy effort has involved protests, publicity in major newspapers and on mobile billboards, celebrity denunciations and a petition via Change.org.

In recent years, Mercy has released investigative video documenting extreme animal abuse by Walmart suppliers. The videos show pigs hit with metal cans and sheets of wood and sows held in cages so small they could barely move.

Mercy, in its praise for the Walmart position statement, also emphasized its own position: The best way to prevent animal abuse is to stop eating animals.

Charting change

Major animal-welfare moves announced by food and retail companies since 2012:

• FEBRUARY 2012: McDonald’s Corp. requires U.S. pork suppliers to outline plans to phase out sow gestation stalls.

• AUGUST 2014: Nestle says it wants to get rid of the confinement of sows in gestation crates and egg-laying chickens in cages. It also wants to eliminate the cutting of the horns, tails and genitals of farm animals without painkillers and pledges to work with suppliers on the responsible use of antibiotics.

• DECEMBER 2014: Starbucks supports the responsible use of antibiotics, eliminating the use of artificial growth hormones and wants to address concerns related to de-horning and other forms of castration — with and without anesthesia.

• MARCH 2015: McDonald’s says it is asking chicken suppliers to curb the use of antibiotics. 

• APRIL 2015: Aramark, the largest U.S. food-service company, says it’s eliminating all cages for laying hens by 2020, gestation crates for mother pigs by 2017 and crates for veal calves by 2017.

• APRIL 2015: Tyson Foods plans to eliminate the use of antibiotics medically important to humans in its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017. The company has also said it’s working on ways to curb use of antibiotics for its beef and chicken businesses.

— Associated Press

Low-wage earners demonstrate in ‘Fight for $15’

The Fight for $15 campaign to win higher pay and a union for fast-food workers is expanding to represent a variety of low-wage workers and become more of a social justice movement.

In New York City on April 15, more than 100 chanting protesters gathered outside a McDonald’s around noon, prompting the store to lock its doors to prevent the crowd from streaming in.

Demonstrators laid on the sidewalk outside to stage a “die-in,” which became popular during the “Black Lives Matter” protests after recent police shootings of black men. Several wore sweatshirts that said “I Can’t Breathe,” a nod to the last words of a black man in New York City who died after he was put in a police chokehold.

Timothy Roach, a 21-year-old Wendy’s worker from Milwaukee, said the police brutality black men face is linked to the lack of economic opportunity they’re given. He said the protests were necessary to send a message to companies.

“If they don’t see that it matters to us, then it won’t matter to them,” Roach said.

Organizers said demonstrations were planned for more than 230 U.S. cities and college campuses, as well as dozens of cities overseas. Among those who joined the latest day of protests were airport workers, Walmart workers and adjunct professors.

The campaign began in late 2012 and is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which represents low-wage workers in areas like home care, child care and building cleaning services. Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU’s president, said the push has already helped prompt local governments to consider higher minimum wages, nudged companies to announce pay hikes and made it easier for SEIU members to win better contracts. Those results are inspiring other groups of workers, she said.

“It has defied a sense of hopelessness,” she said.

In Jackson, Mississippi, around 30 people protested in a McDonald’s before being kicked out, with one of the demonstrators being arrested for trespassing. Protesters also gathered outside McDonald’s restaurants in cities including Denver, Los Angeles and Albany, New York.

Even if fast-food workers and others never become union members, winning higher pay for them would benefit the SEIU by helping lift pay for its members, said Susan Schurman, dean of Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

“By raising the wage floor, it really benefits everyone,” she said.

Ann Hodges, a professor of labor employment law at the University of Richmond, said engaging different types of workers also broadens the appeal of the movement by increasing the chances people know someone who’s affected.

And the push to make Fight for $15 more of a social justice movement makes those who might have negative perceptions about unions more likely to join, she said.

“It becomes easier to organize workers if they view it as something positive and socially desirable,” Hodges said.

In the meantime, McDonald’s said this month it would raise its starting salary to $1 above the local minimum wage, and give workers the ability to accrue paid time off. It marked the company’s first national pay policy, and indicates McDonald’s wants to take control of its image as an employer. But the move only applies to workers at company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations.

McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s say they don’t control the employment decisions at franchised restaurants. The SEIU is working to upend that position and hold McDonald’s responsible for labor conditions at franchised restaurants in multiple ways, including lawsuits.

In a statement, McDonald’s said it respects the right to “peacefully protest.” In the past, it said only about 10 to 15 McDonald’s workers out of about 800,000 in the U.S. have participated.

In a recent column in The Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s Corp. CEO Steve Easterbrook described the company’s pay hike and other perks as “an initial step,” and said he wants to transform McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger company.”

But that transformation will have to take place as labor organizers continue pressuring employers over wages. Ahead of the protests this week, a study funded by the SEIU found working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance a year as a result of their low wages.

Indiana success emboldens gay right advocates

Gay rights advocates are hoping to parlay the momentum from their big legislative victories in Indiana and Arkansas into further expanding legal protections for gays and lesbians in states around the U.S.

Hundreds of people calling for Indiana to add protections for gays and lesbians to state civil rights laws marched through downtown Indianapolis on Saturday, April 4, drawing the attention of fans attending college basketball’s Final Four basketball tournament, a major event in American sports. They chanted “No more Band-Aids masking hate,” before they walked several blocks to Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the NCAA men’s basketball championship semi-final and final games.

Facing widespread pressure, including from big businesses such as Apple and Wal-Mart, Republican lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas rolled back their states’ new religious objections laws, which critics said could be used to discriminate against gays. Amid the uproar, the Republican governors of Michigan and North Dakota urged their own legislatures to extend anti-discrimination protections to gays.

A wave of religious objections laws have been proposed in states across America as same-sex marriage rapidly advanced, prompting a backlash from evangelical Christian Republicans.

Court rulings and state legislatures have legalized same-sex marriage in 37 states and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to finally issue a decision on the legality of gay marriage this year.

The gay rights movement is also pressing for protections for gays and lesbians in states’ non-discrimination laws. Twenty-nine states don’t include protections for gays, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But the Indiana and Arkansas laws are fueling efforts to change that as the 2016 elections approach.

Similar debates are going on elsewhere. In North Dakota the Republican-controlled Legislature voted down a measure that would have prohibited discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation in the areas of housing and employment. Gov. Jack Dalrymple rebuked lawmakers, saying such discrimination wasn’t acceptable.

In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder warned legislators that he would veto a religious objections bill unless they also sent him a measure that would extend anti-discrimination protections to gays. He cited the Indiana outcry in making his warning.

Most of the states without sexual orientation protections are solid Republican strongholds in the South or the central Plains. As public opinion has become more supportive of same-sex marriage and other gay rights in recent years, many businesses say such protections factor into their decisions about expansions and help them attract top employees.

Indiana’s Republican-controlled Legislature took a first step by adding language to its new religious objections law stating that service providers can’t use the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors. It is now the first Indiana state law that explicitly mentions sexual orientation and gender identity.

The governors of New York and Connecticut, who had imposed bans on state officials traveling to Indiana as a symbol of their opposition to the religious objections law, lifted those bans in response to the changes in the law.

Arkansas’ amended law only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals. The law’s supporters say the changes would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals, even though it doesn’t include specific anti-discrimination language similar to Indiana’s law.

Gay rights proponents want Arkansas to go further, though, and are trying to build support for adding sexual orientation to the protected statuses covered by the state’s civil rights laws. The state’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, last week approved the wording of a proposed ballot measure that would add such protections, clearing the way for supporters to begin gathering the signatures needed to get it on the November 2016 ballot.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, meanwhile, has left open the possibility of issuing an executive order that would prohibit workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at state agencies.

Arkansas state Rep. Warwick Sabin, a Democrat from Little Rock, said the issue isn’t going away.

“Other states are moving ahead of us and Arkansas is being left in the dust,” he said. “We need to make an affirmative statement about our values as a state, and I know that the vast majority of Arkansans believe in fairness and opportunity for all of its citizens.”

U.S. businesses uniting to oppose anti-LGBT legislation in states

Major U.S. corporations this week launched a statement by businesses speaking out against an onslaught of anti-LGBT legislation being considered in states around the country, including measures to sanction discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs.

The statement, circulated by the Human Rights Campaign, calls on public officials to defeat or abandon efforts to enact anti-LGBT measures at the state level and offers business leaders an opportunity to join the campaign.

In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Apple CEO Tim Cook decried pro-discrimination laws as dangerous and called on business leaders to speak up.

Joining Apple and Cook in the statement for equality are American Airlines, Inc.; Levi Strauss & Co; Microsoft Corp.; Orbitz Worldwide; Replacements, Ltd; ​Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.; Symantec Corporation; and Wells Fargo & Company.

And the list continues to grow.

“Business leaders have made it abundantly clear that these anti-LGBT bills undermine their core values and set dangerous precedents that stifle investment and economic growth,” said HRC president Chad Griffin in a news release. “Anti-equality lawmakers who value corporate investments in their state should sit up, pay attention, and abandon these bills attacking LGBT people.”

The statement that businesses and business leaders are signing says:

“Corporate leaders are speaking out against bills that could allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and other minorities — several versions of which are actively being considered in states across the country.

This proposed legislation is bad for business.

• Equality in the workplace is a business priority to foster talent and innovation, and these state laws undermine this core value.

• These state laws set a dangerous precedent that stifles investment and economic growth by jeopardizing a state’s status as a welcoming place for employees to live and thrive, undermining the success of a business at large.

• It is unreasonable for job creators to recruit a diverse workforce from states that encourage businesses to discriminate against our community of employees or consumers.

• While these bills won’t alter our commitment to equality in the workplace, this legislation sends the wrong message about the states in which we operate and threatens our core corporate commitment to respect all individuals. 

On the Web …

Businesses and business leaders wishing to sign on the statement can download a PDF at http://goo.gl/gKEic2.

Wal-Mart urges Arkansas governor to veto ‘License to Discriminate’ bill

Wal-Mart on March 31 urged Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto a “license to discriminate” bill similar to the measure generating widespread protest against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the conservative majority in that state’s legislature.

The Arkansas House sent the bill to Hutchinson earlier this week. The measure would allow discrimination against people based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs.”

In a statement, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillan said, “Every day in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve. It all starts with our core basic belief of respect for the individual. Today’s passage of H.B. 1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold. For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation.”

H.B.1228, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, would a person to ignore state laws and cite his or her personal religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against others.

For instance, a teacher who puts an anti-bullying policy into practice could be at risk of being sued or a police officer could sue a precinct because patrolling a synagogue violated his or her religious beliefs.

Wal-Mart joins dozens of corporate leaders and businesses who have condemned the legislation, including Apple and its CEO Tim Cook; Acxiom, one of Arkansas’ largest employers; Yelp; PayPal; the Arkansas Municipal League and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Similar legislation signed into law in Indiana has received a torrent of criticism, as companies such as Salesforce, Angie’s List and others have stated that they will cut back on or limit investment in the state of Indiana because of the discriminatory new law.

If Hutchinson signs H.B. 1228 into law, it would be the second piece of anti-LGBT legislation to become law in Arkansas this year.

In February, the legislature passed S.B. 202, prohibiting municipalities from enacting non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people. Hutchinson allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Meth lab discovered in Wal-mart bathroom

A restroom at a Wal-Mart in eastern Indiana has been closed indefinitely after an employee discovered a working meth lab inside.

State police say a Wal-Mart employee alerted police after seeing a man he described as suspicious enter the restroom late one night with a backpack and leave without it. The Star Press reports that members of a state police meth suppression team removed the dangerous chemicals.

Delaware County Health Department inspectors closed the restroom and a nearby women’s restroom until they could be “decontaminated” by a professional cleaning company.

State police say people who make methamphetamine are leaving “the deadly explosive chemicals in public places to return later to get the finished product,” rather than risk explosions and contamination at their own homes.

Wal-Mart criticizes so-called ‘conscience protection’ measure

Wal-Mart this week criticized a measure in the retail giant’s home state that opponents say sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians, while Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also expressed concerns about the legislation.

The proposal to prohibit state and local governments from imposing a “substantial burden” on someone’s religious beliefs faced new resistance a day after Arkansas became the second state to bar cities and counties from expanding anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.

Bentonville-based Wal-Mart’s criticism of the pending legislation was nearly identical to concerns it raised about the new law regarding local ordinances. The world’s largest retailer includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy.

“While HB1228 will not change how we treat our associates and operate our business, we feel this legislation is also counter to our core basic belief of respect for the individual and sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state,” Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement.

Hutchinson, a Republican, said he had reservations the House-backed measure, but stopped short of saying whether he opposed it. Hutchinson said he has questions about how the measure would be applied.

“I can see a great deal of litigation coming out of this, and so we want to have a better understanding of it,” Hutchinson told reporters.

The measure would ban any local or state laws or regulations that substantially burden religious beliefs unless a “compelling governmental interest” is proven. The bill, if enacted, would strengthen any case of a person suing the government if that person could prove their religious beliefs were infringed upon.

The legislation is patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have similar laws and 10 states are currently considering them. Hutchinson said he understands the desire to protect religious freedom, but said he needed more information on the bill’s impact.

“Part of it is, if as a lawyer I can’t get a good grasp of it one time through, then it makes me wonder how this is going to be interpreted by the courts,” Hutchinson said. “It’s just the unintended consequences of legislation is what you’ve got to look at very carefully.”

Hutchinson’s comments came a day after he allowed legislation to become law that bans local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity. Opponents of the measure had urged Hutchinson to veto it after he said he was concerned about it infringing on local control.

Both bills were pushed in response to a Fayetteville ordinance that barred discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The city’s voters repealed the ordinance in December.

Gay rights groups have shifted their attention to the “conscience protection” measure, calling it another thinly veiled attempt to endorse bias against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“HB1228 is equally disturbing and allows any person to claim religious belief as their grounds for discriminatory acts,” Kendra Johnson, state director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement issued this week. “Simply put, state senators should erase it from the legislative agenda.”

The measure was expected to go before a Senate panel on Wednesday. Its sponsor said he planned to talk with Hutchinson about his concerns.

“I know the bill real well and I know Asa, where he stands on the issue,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said. “I think in the end he’ll side with protecting people’s religious freedom.”