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Maxima: environmentally responsible sweatshop or falsely accused?

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A famous Lithuanian journalist Arturas Racas reposted a letter he received from the Union of Wage Labourers about a violation committed by the biggest Lithuanian supermarket chain, Maxima. The chain actively took part in the nation-wide day for environmental event, "Darom 2010" (LT: Let's do 2010). The event encouraged people to get together and clean up their environment.

Apparently, some of those ad hoc environmental activists even discovered the body of Drasius Kedys, who is a hero for some and a criminal for others after shooting two persons who allegedly brought young children, including his daughter, to pedophiles. Anyway, I don't have any knowledge about this case, so let's leave it for now. Maxima supplied rubbish bags and other materials for volunteers and promised to get its staff actively involved in the event. The Union claims that employees of Maxima were forced to take part.

According to Irina Judina, the chair of the Union, all employees who had a day-off that day were called to work. Employees were allegedly made to clean windows and other parts of Maxima stores, and pick up rubbish around the stores. The aforementioned journalist, who also wrote that the letter was addressed to other media (but so far I've only seen any mention of the alleged violation on his blog), immediately wrote to Maxima asking for explanation. Perhaps it was just a self-willed act of certain store managers? Maxima's PR representative responded that any involvement in the event on behalf of the employees was voluntary. Predictably, she chose to play a victim: Maxima is trying very hard to be a socially responsible company, but it is never appreciated.

While it is true that other businesses may be equally exploitative of their employees, Maxima is known for going far in that. People are more sensitive to what is happening in Maxima because it is a very big chain, and many people have friends or relatives who work or have worked for Maxima (since employees there change really fast). Maxima also had strong links to the previous government and is known for its bulldozer type urban initiatives.

I met Ms Judina at a conference almost a year ago, she's a rare brave activist, someone much needed in the gloomy landscape of Lithuanian unions. At the time she was trying to expose sweatshop conditions and crackdown on union activism at another supermarket chain, IKI. It is a very difficult job, because, predictably, big businesses can hire good lawyers, while workers have difficulties in gathering any evidence to support their cause. This is because

All in all, I prefer to believe that pressure on employees to take part in the environmentalist event (pay attention - to clean around supermarkets, not anywhere they preferred!) is a fact. Yet the only way where the unions can move on from here is, first, increasing media exposure of the issue, second, offering training for its members on how to recognise and document pressure from employers, and, third, appeal to the organisers of the event, encouraging them to stop tolerating forceful measures under their project.As I understand, all the requests by the employers are made orally, in the typical Eastern European 'voluntarily compulsory' fashion. Proving that such conversations existed would require bringing a recorder to a staff meeting. Even if recorded, the messages may not necessarily be direct. The employer may utter something like, "I want you to be there at 8." How do you interpret it? "I think it would be a good idea" or "... otherwise you won't be on the list when we consider wage raises or days-off at Christmas"? Most co-workers would be afraid to witness against their employers due to their fears of losing benefits or even the job. During the crisis workers are especially alienated, and unions have not yet been able to offer them effective protection.