South Africa is set to become the battleground for a showdown between global trade unions and Wal-Mart, the world's largest private sector employer.

Within South Africa, the competition authorities will be the primary site of that battle. Already, representatives from unions as far-flung as Mexico and Chile are preparing to assist the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) to prepare a case to be presented to the Competition Tribunal in the coming weeks.

While the proposed acquisition of Massmart by Wal-Mart presents minimal competition issues, the Competition Act requires the Competition Commission and the tribunal to consider the public interest implications of any transaction.

In this context, a crucial issue of public interest will be Wal-Mart's impact on employment.

This means that for the first time since the 1990s when the giant US retail group decided to seek growth opportunities outside North America, Wal-Mart will be required to persuade national regulators that, regardless of any perceived negative impact on the quality and number of jobs, its entry will have a net positive public interest impact.

Although a number of Wal-Mart's international operations allow workers, referred to “associates” by the retailer, to be unionised, none of its operations in the US allow unions.

Global union associations and their affiliates from countries in which Wal-Mart operates are preparing to assist Saccawu as it challenges Wal-Mart's attempts to make its case.

Yesterday Saccawu gave notice, through the launch of its Anti-Wal-Mart Coalition, of its intention to fight Wal-Mart's entry on a number of fronts, including creating public awareness, encouraging debate with politicians and presenting a persuasive case to the competition authorities.

The coalition's objective is to secure binding commitments from Wal-Mart before it is given approval to proceed with the Massmart offer. - Business Report