Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

“They represent Plantation Capitalism.”

In the documentary Wal-mart-The High Cost of Low Price director Robert Greenwald takes a hard look at the business practices of the retail corporate giant. The film begins with the town of Middlefield. Various small business owners are interviewed about the new Wal-mart coming to town, and there’s a sense of nostalgia built up right before the heavy equipment starts breaking ground for the new gigantic Wal-mart. The next scenes show the small, family owned businesses closed and up for sale. Yes, Wal-mart has arrived in yet another town in America–bringing those famous low prices– but what else can a town expect when Wal-mart arrives?

The documentary interviews current and former Wal-mart employees about their experiences with the corporate giant. One of the big complaints is that Wal-mart provides inadequate health insurance and that 100s of thousands of employees–already on minimum wage–are pointed in the direction of state programmes when they can’t afford the necessary deductible to take their children to the Dr.

The film also examines exactly how Wal-mart handles even the whisper of the any possible union activity taking place in the ranks. Interviews include former managers describing how they alter time clocks and persuade employees to work off the clock. One section even highlights a news story of undocumented workers locked into a Wal-mart for a 10-hour night shift.

There’s enough info here to discourage anyone from stepping in a Wal-mart again. The amount of tax subsidies this corporation receives is staggering ($1.008 BILLION nationwide). But the film fails to take into account that the business practices applied here towards employees (working off the clock, deliberate short staffing, for example) are hardly restricted to Wal-mart. Many large retail corporations do exactly the same thing to their employees knowing full well that the employees need a job too desperately to complain, and it’s naive to imagine that Wal-mart is the only culprit. In addition, decent health insurance (low or no deductible) is becoming an almost impossible goal–and that signals a greater social ill than can simply be lodged at Wal-mart.

The film, however, is at its most powerful when the focus shifts to overseas, and we see the reality of life for the foreign workers. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-mart makes some speeches about great jobs and workers’ right, etc, but the bottom line isn’t so pretty. Scott states Wal-mart has a “great relationship with the Chinese.” Well, he isn’t joking … Chinese workers work 14 hour days and are charged ‘rent’ for company-provided dormitories–regardless of whether or not they chose to live there. As one Chinese worker explains “they will tell us how to lie for the inspection.” When you see the scenes of exactly how third world countries are used to make the products sold at Wal-mart, well, it doesn’t exactly make you want to be part of it.

There are some juicy facts and figures about the fabulously wealthy Walton family thrown in, and we get a view of the fantabulous Lee Scott mansion. The film’s overly optimistic ending is a call-to-arms for those who wish to fight off the presence of yet another ‘big box’ in their community. Ultimately since politicians continue to turn a deaf ear, it’s up to consumers to decide where in good conscience they want to spend their hard-earned money.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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