Wal-Mart may face army of 1.5m in class suit
Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
Thursday September 25, 2003
The largest private employer in the US has been accused of discriminating against women in what may become the biggest class action case in legal history. Up to one-and-a-half million women could join the action against the Wal-Mart chain in a suit being heard in San Francisco this week.
Wal-Mart Stores, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, employs over a million people nation-wide and only the government is a bigger employer.
The company has been the subject of numerous complaints by employees about low pay but the mass claim is potentially the most damaging it has faced. It is resisting the action.
The action alleging sex discrimination was first launched in 2001 by seven female former employees. It claims that women have faced routine bias for years regarding promotion, pay and training, and asserts there was a corporate culture that made it harder for women to advance than men. Also, while women make up 70 per cent of the workforce employed by the hour they fill only 15 per cent of management posts.
One plaintiff, Ramona Scott, who worked in a Florida branch from 1990 to 1998, alleges her manager met her complaints about discrimination by saying: "Men are here for a career and women aren't. Retail is for housewives who just need extra money."
Wal-Mart says there is no evidence of discrimination, and that the larger percentage of male employees in management reflects how many applications the company receives.
Having one-and-a-half million women on the action would make it an impossible case, the company says.
Other firms with large numbers of women in non-management posts are watching with interest. In 1997, the Home Depot firm settled a sex discrimination action for $104m in a case involving 25,000 women.