It has been a rich month for the corporate bashing documentary films, with the release of Enron - the Smartest Men in the Room, and now Wal-Mart - the High Cost of Low Price. The first deals with the collapse of a company now non-existence, the second with a corporation still very much in existence.
The documentary begins, and is structured, by an almost evangelical Wal-Mart AGM. This rally for the faithful sees the CEO Lee Scott detailing the successes of Wal-Mart, and answering the growing criticisms of the firm's business practices. The documentary then seeks to show the key criticisms of the firm by telling stories from communities across the United States, indeed across the world.
The first story is the Hunter family, a true ma and pa operation hailing from Middlefield, xxx. This is middle America, conservative, Bush voting and freedom loving. But importantly Wal-Mart hating. For the opening of a Wal-Mart in close proximity to the town centre saw the family business destroyed. Later on this story is repeated in the tears of the Esry family from Hamilton, Missouri, who lost their small grocery chain when Wal-Mart opened with subsidies from the city, county and state government.
Some of the claims are disturbing and upsetting. Chief amongst these are the criticisms of the employment practices of the corporation. In the US this involves keeping a majority of the staff on the unsustainably low wage of approximately $7 per hour. Overtime is routinely unwaged, and the benefits package is inadequate and unaffordable for most. Over to Loveland, Colorado where attempts to unionise a part of a giant Wal-Mart see the corporation react in typical, if massively disproportionate fashion. It sees the company dispatch union-busting executives from Arkansas, employ illegal surveillance and corporate pressure. The likeable and young Josh, thrown into fighting against the company, seems doomed to failure.
The corporation appears to be completely rife with discriminatory practices. 1,630,000 former and current woman employees are potentially affected by a class action being brought, with appallingly misogynistic practices sitting comfortably with the allegations of racism. One woman asks why she is not able to take up a management position, and she is told that she doesn't fit. She says that she is a woman and black, which one was it? The manager allegedly replied "well two out of two ain't bad."
In Pasadena, California the workers report that they are told to do more work for less wages. The testimony is bourn out in the number of class actions, in 31 states, by workers alleging they have been cheated out of overtime payments. If life is tough in the States, it is tragically grinding overseas. Stories from China, Bangladesh and Honduras demonstrate how, as Jon Stewart jokes, you get your Wal-Mart sweater for 32¢.
The film is a powerful demonstration of how a corporation can become dangerously powerful. It unites groups from around the world who have a common gripe against Wal-Mart. But it has to be noted that the film becomes a little overbearing. In the end it is a documentary that strains the premise a little too far. Examples include blaming the corporation for crimes on its premises, and the examples of environmental degradation. Whilst the company could clearly have done more on both these fronts, the film seeks to demonise and draw judgements a little too quickly.
That said it is clear that Wal-Mart has remarkable resources at its disposal. This film marks a small attempt to fight back for the small communities that are destroyed by the corporation. And it ends with the small communities succeeding at fighting back. And this is a happy ending, with the almost gospel hallelujahs at driving back Goliath.