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Editor,In the eyes of Wal-Mart detractors, the Arkansas-based chain embodies the worst kind of economic exploitation. It pays its 1.2 million workers an average of only $9.

Editor,In the eyes of Wal-Mart detractors, the Arkansas-based chain embodies the worst kind of economic exploitation. It pays its 1.2 million workers an average of only $9.68 per hour, doesn't provide most of them with health insurance, keeps out unions, has a chequered history of labour laws and turns Main Street into a ghost town by jockeying business away from small retailers.

But isn't Wal-Mart being punished for our sins? It's not as if Wal-Mart's founder Sam Walton and his successor created the world's largest retailer by putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to shop there. Instead, Wal-Mart has lured customers with low prices. "We expect our suppliers to drive the costs out of the supply chain," a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said. It's good for us and good for them.

Wal-Mart may have perfected this technique, but you can find it almost everywhere these days. Corporations are in fierce competition to get and keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their costs through to consumers as lower prices. Products are manufactured in China at a fraction of the cost of making them here and North American consumers get great deals. Back office work along with computer programming and data crunching is "offshored" to India so our dollars go even further.

Meanwhile many of us pressure companies to give us better bargains. We go on the internet to find the lowest prices.

The fact is today, economies offer us a Faustian bargain it can give consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities.

We can blame big corporations but we're mostly making this bargain with ourselves; the easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the downward pressure on wages and benefits.

Last year (2004) the real wage of hourly workers who make up about 80 per cent of the work force actually dropped for the first time in a decade (US figures). Hourly workers, health and pension benefits are in freefall. The more efficiently we can summon product, from anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our communities.

But you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How do we strike the right balance?

To claim that people shouldn't have access to Wal-Mart or to outlaw services from India or Internet shopping because these somehow reduce their quality of life is paternalistic tripe.

No one is a better judge of what people want than they themselves. The problem is the choices we make in the market don't fully reflect our values as workers or as citizens. I don't want our community bookstore to close, yet I still buy lots of books from In addition we may not see the larger bargain when our own job or community isn't directly at stake. I don't like what's happening to airline workers, but I still try for the cheapest fare I can get.

The only way for the workers or citizens is through laws and regulation that make our purchases social choices as well as personal ones.

A requirement that companies with more than 50 employees offer the workers affordable health care and child care might increase slightly the price of goods and services. My inner consumer won't like that very much. But the worker in me thinks it's a fair price to pay.

I wouldn't go as far as to re-regulate the airline industry or hobble free trade with India and China. That would cost me as a consumer far too much, but I'd like government to offer wage insurance to ease the pain of sudden loss of pay, and I'd support labour standards that make trade agreement a bit more fair.

These provisions might end up costing me some money, but the citizen in me thinks they are worth the price. You might think differently, but as a nation we aren't having this sort of discussion.

Instead our debates about economic change take place between two warring camps: those who want the best consumer deals, and those who want to preserve jobs and communities much as they are. Instead of finding ways to soften the blows, compensate the losers, or slow the pace of change, so the consumer in us can enjoy lower prices and better product, without wreaking too much damage on us in our role as workers and citizens - we go to battle.

Remember the prices on sale tags don't reflect the full prices we have to pay as workers and citizens. A sensible public debate would focus on how to make that total price as low as possible.

Rob Greene


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