|By Tony Wong
||November 17, 2005
If you're going to tackle big business, it pays to start at the top.
Activist-director Robert Greenwald takes on the world's largest corporation in Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price in a damning documentary that will make you think twice about where you buy cheap underwear.
Don't expect any Michael Moore-style publicity stunts here. Nor will you find Greenwald eating super-sized burger meals to prove a point. The director lets his subjects do the talking - which is just fine, since they are mostly former Wal-Mart employees, many of them high-ranking insiders with disturbing stories to tell.
The Wal-Mart universe painted by Greenwald is grimly Dickensian, supported on the backs of what seems to be an underworld of Tiny Tim clerks barely eking out a subsistence living.
Wal-Mart's "plantation capitalism," as one observer puts it, of unpaid overtime, stingy benefits and the use of poorly paid labour shows capitalism at the height of its powers - and the potential for abuse.
Weldon Nicholson, Wal-Mart manager for 17 years, says he was the ultimate store soldier until his conscience got to him and he quit. His job was to systematically force out workers suspected of union activity. Other Wal-Mart employees accuse the corporation of shaving hours off employee time cards and playing hardball with towns that opposed Wal-Mart projects.
Jim Bill Lynn, a former global services operations manager for Wal-Mart whose job was to certify factories in Central America, says over the course of his inspections he saw workers earning pitiful wages while locked inside plants without drinking water, and forced to work until released by management.
Lynn says after his first inspection, he went back to his hotel room and wept.
A lot of the material isn't new: Wal-Mart shares haven't had a stellar year, one reason being that the retailer has been the target of a host of lawsuits, alleging everything from environmental, to labour and health and safety violations. But no one has managed to put it together this comprehensively.
Corporations as evil empires sticking it to humanity in their quest for profit and world market domination is already a thoroughly mined genre. It took Michael Moore's 1989 breakthrough Roger&Me to reveal not only was there an audience for the documentary as polemic on the perils of corporatization, but box office to be reaped as well. Following in the footsteps of Moore, Morgan Spurlock sparred with McDonald's in Super Size Me.
But while Moore decapitates his victims with a keen wit, Greenwald (Uncovered: The War On Iraq and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism) is far more earnest, verging on being ham-handed. And while it's popular to use Wal-Mart as a punching bag these days, viewing its stores as retail Death Stars that cause nothing but economic devastation for small communities, the film does little to give a sense of balance. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott is shown talking about the Wal-Mart philosophy, but little is said about the billions that Wal-Mart puts back into the economy.
The company created more than 200,000 jobs in 2004 alone, and it has raised living standards by allowing families to afford more low-cost items. The Wal-Mart effect is of course, the stuff of business legend: One study touted by the corporation estimates that the average American household saves more than $2,000 annually because of the corporation's aggressive stance on lowering prices. And of course, Wal-Mart has hugely enriched shareholders the world over, in particular the Walton family, now worth collectively more than $100 billion.
What doesn't help is when CEO Scott is shown boasting about his $10 lunches and sharing hotel rooms with his fellow executives to lower costs when he took home more than $17 million last year. That's in comparison to the average Wal-Mart worker, who makes an average of $13,861 annually - less than $10 an hour, according to Greenwald.
Still, that's better than what Wal-Mart sub-contractors pay employees in Bangladesh or China, where workers average 17 cents an hour, according to one study.
Sensitive to the fact that the $1.8 million documentary could be crippling to the Christian, family loving image of the retailer, Wal-Mart has struck back at the filmmakers by putting together their own war room of spin doctors to respond to the film. The company has also been heavily promoting the documentary Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Makes Some People Crazy that presents the retailer in a more positive light.
Calling Greenwald's film an "error-ridden propaganda video," Wal-Mart says the documentary will have limited appeal beyond the "special interests" that Greenwald represents.
Wal-Mart is wrong.