Thursday, January 19, 2006

A lesson in how one person can make a difference

Dear Readers,

There has certainly been a great deal going on in the world and I have been obviously absent from the discussion. However, after spending the past month and a half struggling with healthcare and financial organizations I truly feel a lot like Don Quixote. Normally, immersing myself in the news gives me a much needed respite but this time has been overwhelming. It's times like these that having a friend who supports your vision is worth more than a million bucks. plk

"It is incredible that an independent filmmaker can wield such power over the largest retailer in the world. But his example holds a lesson for us all – consumers, workers and voters – we have the power to change the way the world works."

Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price
Angela Saini
13 - 1 - 2006

The success of Robert Greenwald’s documentary on the American retail behemoth holds an inspiring lesson, says Angela Saini.

Work just isn't what it used to be. There was a time you could get up in the morning, go down to the office and be happy in the knowledge that you had a job for life, and you'd be home in time for dinner. Not any more.

Facing global competition, companies in the west have started chipping away at working conditions to lower costs. Freelance contracts, long and unsociable hours, low pay, and zero benefits are leaving millions of workers helpless.

Robert Greenwald captures the desperate situation in his latest film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. He tells the shocking tale of working conditions in America's biggest supermarket. Wal-Mart is the epitome of stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap warehouse-style chain stores, which are scattered across the country like Lego bricks in a playroom.

Greenwald's film comes hot on the heels of his last corporate attack, on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. In Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Greenwald used news clips and interviews with ex-employees to mount an incredible attack on the broadcaster. His new film is structured in exactly the same way, and carries as much of a punch.

There is something bizarrely manic about the smiling faces in Wal-Mart's recruitment adverts. They are the same smiling faces that warn you in a company video, after you have been recruited, not to join a union. Wal-Mart's strict anti-union policy has been one of the reasons why it has managed to slash wages and gradually remove benefits like health insurance. Union membership is already low in the United States, running at just above 12% of all waged workers. But the casual nature of retail work, combined with a deliberate anti-union strategy, forces that proportion down to almost zero among Wal-Mart employees

Greenwald's documentary abounds with horror stories. Workers bitterly describe being forced to do unpaid overtime, being verbally and racially abused by colleagues, and earning barely enough to support themselves.

"For seventeen years, I was a good Wal-Mart soldier," says former manager Weldon Nicholson. "I did everything the company told me to, until my conscience got the best of me, and I couldn't stomach it anymore." Weldon's bosses forced him to quash any signs of unionisation and tamper with timesheets to cheat employees out of their salaries.

Edith Arana worked at Wal-Mart for six years, showing unflinching loyalty and working extra hours to impress her bosses. But she says she was repeatedly refused promotion because she was black. The list of Wal-Mart's failures grows longer by the minute. It seems that despite the smiling faces that greet you when you enter, every store must have a gang of grumbling workers, downtrodden and depressed.

But the impact of the supermarket chain transcends its giant walls. Greenwald's film also profiles the kind of wholesome all-American small family businesses that the US economic dream is built upon – all ruthlessly forced extinct by the arrival of Wal-Mart. War veteran and churchgoer Red Esry lost his grocery store ten years ago when Wal-Mart came to Hamilton, Missouri. "I don't mind competing, but only if it's on an even playing field, and Wal-Mart is not on an even playing field," he says, while his granddaughter weeps in the background.

Wal-Mart certainly seems to have an unfair advantage over competitors. The Walton family company has grown from modest beginnings in 1962 to become the world’s largest retailer – with sales of almost $300 billion a year and 1.6 million employees worldwide - and made its inheritors fabulously rich in the process. This size gives Wal-Mart unprecedented power over workers, suppliers and consumers – economies on such a scale that it becomes impossible for anyone to undercut them without making a loss.

As anyone who has ever been to a Wal-Mart supermarket will know, the lure is irresistible. Every brand and every product is available, and at the lowest prices: groceries, clothes, electrical goods, and many even have pharmacies and opticians. Who has time to trawl their local shops and markets, and who wants to pay more when they can pay less? It's a vicious temptation that has lead to the closure of thousands of local stores – stores that consumers didn't even know they wanted until they were gone.

Yet Greenwald's film also highlights the immense control that consumers en masse have over society. Choosing where to buy a product holds the same power in the capitalist domain as voting does in a democracy.

When that power is exercised it can have extraordinary results. The backlash against Wal-Mart has been like the one against McDonald's when Morgan Spurlock unleashed his blockbuster film Supersize Me. Consumers across the US have already blocked Wal-Mart stores from coming to their towns. Meanwhile aggrieved employees are bringing lawsuits for unpaid hours and race and discrimination are homes to this growing movement.

China gets the bug

As bad as life gets in the west, however, it doesn't compare to the awful conditions suffered by factory workers in the developing world. Even here, Wal-Mart has extended its finger. Such a large proportion of Wal-Mart goods are sourced from China that the company accounts for 10% of the US's entire trade deficit with China. There, far away from the comfort blanket of labour laws and human rights, thousands of low-paid young workers are struggling to scrape a living.

Greenwald's focus falls on Shenzhen, a city built on the site of a former fishing village and now a centre of teeming entrepreneurial activity. Princess, a young girl in a Wal-Mart factory there, earns a meagre $3 for a fourteen-hour day, some of which must be used to pay for her cramped dormitory accommodation. "Those profits you made and the wonderful life you made are the sweat, and tears and overtime work of Chinese people," says a worker.

China's only recognised trade union is the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which has about 137 million members. For years, Wal-Mart refused to allow its workers in China to join it; in 2004 it relented under pressure. But more than a year later, the anti-union culture within Wal-Mart has discouraged most workers to sign up for fear of losing their jobs.

In a global economy there is the ever-present danger that jobs could be shifted to another corner of the world with even weaker labour laws and lower standards of living. The desperation of low-paid Wal-Mart workers in the US, and their even worst-off colleagues in China, shows that nobody is safe. The standardisation of labour rights across the world remains a far-off dream.

Robert Greenwald's film, campaigners hope, will force a greater change to Wal-Mart's labour practices and halt its race to the bottom. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price has already been an underground sensation in the US, and small screenings have been organised in private homes, halls and colleges across the world.

"To all but a handful of anti-Wal-Mart activists, it simply will be irrelevant," a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said in response to the film. Even so, Wal-Mart has created an entire website dedicated to correcting what it says are errors in Greenwald's film and defending the company's image.

It is incredible that an independent filmmaker can wield such power over the largest retailer in the world. But his example holds a lesson for us all – consumers, workers and voters – we have the power to change the way the world works.

This article is published under a Creative Commons license with the permission of Angela Saini, and You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact for permission and fees.

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