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Michelle Thomas

Published May 12th, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low-Price Review

Classification: PG Director: Robert Greenwald Rating: 4/5

If you thought the Waltons were a kindly family that lived on a mountain and said ‘goodnight’ a lot, think again. The Waltons are in fact the owners of Wal-Mart, the giant US supermarket corporation that makes Tesco look like a friendly neighbourhood store where the shop assistants know your name. Robert Greenwald’s searing documentary exposes the unsavoury practices of the behemoth, much as Morgan Spurlock did to McDonald’s in Super Size Me.

And unsavourty they certainly are. Not content with making a lot of money, the bigwigs at Wal-Mart, led by CEO Lee Scott, are like toddlers – they want to make ALL the money, and keep it for themselves, in the kind of laissez-faire capitalism so beloved of Victorian mill owners. Wal-Mart forces small stores out of business. It keeps its staff on such low wages that they are forced to apply for welfare. It exploits every possible tax break, including builing stores outside of city limits to avoid local taxation, while getting massive subsidies from the federal government to build the infrastructure needed for its unsightly, warehouse-like stores. It spies on employees, putting CCTV in car parks to stop them discussing the possibility of unionisation (which is, naturally, banned), but ignoring the crimes that take place in those same car parks every day. The executives also seem like a bunch of self-congratulatory, smug wankers – and, naturally, stingy with their own wealth.

Against the behemoth are pitted the little people. Greenwald’s team have criss-crossed America to gather on camera the weight of evidence to back up their claims. We hear from families whose businesses have folded after Wal-Mart opens a (subsidised) new store in their town. We hear from Wal-Mart employees who have been forced to turn to the state for aid because they can’t afford to feed their kids. We see former Wal-Mart managers talking about corporate practises: how they would drive through towns predicting how long it would take before the town centres died; how they employed illegal immigrants as cleaners; how they shaved hours off employees’ time cards. Environmentalists talk about how Wal-Mart is poisoning local water supplies. Minorities blocked from promotion to management positions, told ‘there’s no place in management for people like you’.

Wal-Mart’s unpleasant ways also have international implications. The film visits factory workers in China, making toys for twelve hours a day. Wal-Mart also owns Asda, whose stupid tautological tagline and irritating ads have always annoyed me, which is trying to buy Queen’s Market in Newnham and turn it into another hideous superstore, forcing local traders, who sell cheap fresh produce to their multi-cultural customers, out of business. German employees, protected by the kind of unions that have long since gone out of fashion in Britain, are shocked by the way Asda treats its UK workers.

Of course we end with a few heartwarming stories – the Davids who have managed to stave off Goliath, if only for a little while. In California, local activists banded together to stop a new Wal-Mart opening, and are challenging Wal-Mart to uphold their responsibilities to the communities that they, after all, depend on. Similarly, in Arizona, residents of Chandler, a planned community, fought tooth and nail to keep Wal-Mart out – driving Wal-Mart to such desperation that they actually sued the town before admitting defeat. An organic store now stands in its place.

If Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price lacks anything, its a central story, and the kind of heart that a Morgan Spurlock might have given it. There’s no central figure; Greenwald lets the film speak for itself. Can an expose of Tesco be far behind?


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