|By Anita Gates
||November 4, 2005
Robert Greenwald's ''Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price'' is not ''Fahrenheit 9/11.'' There are no goofy takeoffs of old television series. You won't see H. Lee Scott Jr., the chief executive of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer on the planet, practicing his golf swing or making revealing comments on camera.
He doesn't have to. Mr. Greenwald's film features plenty of star witnesses, many of them former employees. Weldon Nicholson, a store-manager trainer for 17 years, says that when Wal-Mart came into a new town, management people would scan the stores along Main Street and make a game of predicting how long it would take each business to close.
Johnny Faenza, an employee of H & H Hardware, a family business in Middlefield, Ohio, that opened in 1962 but bit the dust after Wal-Mart came to town, is mystified by the corporation's unimpeded march toward monopoly. ''They busted up Standard Oil, and they busted up Ma Bell,'' Mr. Faenza says in the film, but in this case, ''nobody seems to be paying attention.''
The saddest part of this documentary is a series of shots of abandoned Main Streets, empty store after empty store, with Bruce Springsteen's plaintive version of ''This Land Is Your Land'' as accompaniment. But vanquishing thousands of small businesses coast to coast is not Wal-Mart's only crime, its critics say.
They also cite the company's treatment of its employees, whose average annual income is under $14,000. The company offers health insurance, but it is so expensive, employees say, that most people can't afford it. According to the documentary, company representatives openly recommend that workers sign up for government-aid programs instead.
Wal-Mart's record on sex and race discrimination is also addressed. One training coordinator recalls being made to clean the bathroom on a regular basis because she was the only woman in the department. A black man recalls racial epithets and lynching jokes.
In China, a young factory employee talks about working conditions. (''I'm sitting there, dripping with sweat all day long,'' she says.) Employees in China say they are housed in dismal dormitories; they may choose to live elsewhere, but still have to pay the dorm rent. In Bangladesh, the documentary says, working hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, for 13 to 17 cents an hour.
Back home in the United States, employees say they are frequently forced to work off the books, meaning no pay for overtime. And of course there was the scandal about employees being locked inside stores overnight.
In all fairness, Wal-Mart is not the only company in the world accused of trying to work its employees to death or of economizing by using part-time and freelance people who don't receive expensive employee benefits.
In addition to these complaints, there also seems to be a problem with security in Wal-Mart parking lots. After interviews with victims and their families, a seemingly endless list of crimes committed in store lots rolls like film credits. Then a message appears onscreen: those were only the ones from the first seven months of 2005.
''The High Cost of Low Price'' makes its case with breathtaking force. Mr. Scott of Wal-Mart declined to speak on camera, Mr. Greenwald says. The company is worried enough about this film and growing opposition elsewhere that it has hired high-powered former presidential advisers and set up a public relations ''war room'' to deflect and respond to criticism.
But it's impossible not to remember what happened with Michael Moore's ''Fahrenheit 9/11'': it outraged many Americans, made White House decisions look ridiculously dishonest and/or inept, and President Bush was re-elected anyway.
The High Cost of Low Price
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Robert Greenwald; director of photography, Kristy Tully; edited by Chris Gordon, Douglas Cheek, Robert Florio and Jonathan Brock; music by John Frizzell; produced by Mr. Greenwald, Jim Gilliam and Devin Smith; released by Brave New Films. In Manhattan at the Village East, Second Avenue at 12th Street, East Village. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is not rated.
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