People’s World: Walmart’s warehouses offer modern slavery, says reporter

Written by Serena Kantari Gombert, BBC World Service World Service The 1.6 million square-metre warehouse is huge. But the threat here is real. Fire fighters, police and customs officials are deployed throughout to protect…

People's World: Walmart's warehouses offer modern slavery, says reporter

Written by Serena Kantari Gombert, BBC World Service World Service

The 1.6 million square-metre warehouse is huge.

But the threat here is real. Fire fighters, police and customs officials are deployed throughout to protect the stores and warehouses.

The clouds of smoke rise and the panoramic images of factory floors and stock rooms are harrowing.

I spent two months reporting in this world of anger, frustration and desperation.

‘Broken promise’

I first met Nadiya, a former manager at a European grocery store with a Walmart logo.

She had paid in full for her house, sent her children to school and regularly earned more than 12 times what she needed to meet her commitments.

I found out about Nadiya by chance when I asked a woman from Uzbekistan in our Newcastle studio to show me the city’s vibrant nightlife.

On her way out she asked me to meet Nadiya and explain what she was doing in Britain.

I found Nadiya standing behind a store. Behind her was a collapsed roof.

Nadiya did not know much English but she told me she had been working for Walmart with a promise of stable employment.

But when she learnt that her store had been closed, she was so upset and angry that she turned to drugs and disappeared.

‘Feared for our lives’

She eventually landed in jail in China on a visa violation and worked for people trafficking gangs, in places like Cambodia, for just $10 a day.

I made my way to Nadiya.

In contrast to our perceptions of Walmart, she didn’t have a big contract or title that allowed her to be a labourer or as such, invisible.

She told me she had worked here for so long it had become part of her identity and she feared reprisals if she broke her work contract.

As a consequence, she feared she would have to stay in the warehouse for months on end, unable to move, evicted and vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Speaking with Nadiya, I realised what I had missed in the reports I wrote about Walmart.

I saw perfectly ordinary people become a reason for humans to dehumanise one another.

From the security guards who watched on as Nadiya worked the late shift and night shift, to the boss who kicked her out of the warehouse on the day I asked her to give me her side of the story, this job was like a cage, trapping the workers.

Nadiya suffered nightmares about her escape but the nightmares became second nature.

Raring to go

When I got Nadiya on the phone, I asked if she wanted to tell her story.

“Yes I want to tell my story,” she said and then quickly stepped into the warehouse.

My imagination was racing. Where was she going and why?

After a short chat, she told me: “I just don’t want to leave here anymore.”

During our conversation, we walked through the warehouse and talked about her role in the company and her skills as a driver.

It is clear Nadiya loves her job but fear is a deep-rooted part of her life.

Serena Kantari Gombert, BBC World Service

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