Pile 'em high

A brave low-budget tale neatly skewers a mega-corporation

<strong>Wal-Mart: the high cost of low p

After Super Size Me and Enron: the smartest guys in the room, only the terminally hopeful would expect a documentary about a giant corporation to be a jolly inventory of its great-value products and sparkling business ethics. It will come as no surprise that Wal-Mart - the US-based global supermarket chain that owns Asda - is not run along the same lines as Santa's workshop. Unless, that is, you imagine his Lapland centre of operations to be a place where Donner and Blitzen are under surveillance for potential union activity, elves are deprived of proper health insurance and overtime, and most of the toy-making work has been outsourced to a cramped and under-ventilated factory somewhere in China.

Yet, despite the inherent lack of suspense in this "bad corporation!" genre - a kind of Barbara Woodhouse slap on the nose for the rich and powerful - Robert Greenwald's documentary still generates enough jaw-dropping revelations to make it more than just an exercise in confirming anti-globalisation prejudices. For example, viewers are told that while Bill Gates has donated more than 58 per cent of his wealth to charity, the surviving members of Wal-Mart's founding Walton family, who are among the ten richest people in America, have given only 1 per cent of theirs, although in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks they did find the funds to build themselves a huge, secure bunker. Meanwhile, the health insurance that Wal-Mart offers its employees is so useless that thousands end up on the government-run Medicaid system, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

While it might confirm the ethical shopper's worst fears, this film also serves as a handy guide for aspiring global businessmen hoping for a bunker of their own one day. It's a "how to" manual, a guide to greed, outlining the tactics necessary to make low wages and low prices pay off in high profits. Former managers explain how full-time employment and overtime are discouraged among the lower ranks, and how union activity is aggressively hunted out. Greenwald finds one young worker trying to set up a union at his store and shows the fear and unease his efforts generate. The reaction is not surprising, when there are spy vans, anti-union hotlines and even a flying task force in a corporate jet to dissuade "troublemakers".

Greenwald's exposé takes a no-nonsense approach, tackling its material with all the artistic subtlety of a special-offer sticker. It contrasts real ads for the company - all-American pantomimes of happy families and can-do workers - with a fake ad that looks a lot like a school project. The film-makers deploy some terrible graphics - again, the high cost of low-price - and there is little in the way of wider analysis. Yet it's a powerful film, alert to irony and unafraid of its mighty opponent. A corporate film shows the chief executive, Lee Scott, telling an adoring audience how the company's detractors are motivated by "fear and envy", and stressing how Wal-Mart must be seen to do the right thing. He boasts how he has the best job in the world because (apart from his $27m wage slip), "Year after year, you get to say, 'We had record sales, we had record earnings, we had record reinvestment back into our capital.'" Testimony from former employees, people trying to hold homes and families together, serves as a power- ful contrast, while interviews that take place in the cars of ex-managers-turned-whistle-blowers lend a deep-throat edge.

It's an approach that manages to convey the vacuum at the heart of Wal-Mart. It shows factories in China, Honduras and Bangladesh where workers seem not to be finding the opportunities for personal development trumpeted by Scott. It visits Upton Park in east London, where the fruiterer Neil Stockwell is campaigning against the company's plans to buy up Queen's Market despite there being an Asda only two miles away. "They want to own everything," he rages. It's the same story in Middlefield, Ohio, where the Hunter family has been forced to close its hardware business after 43 years, thanks to the low prices of Wal-Mart.

It's not just the breakdown of "mom and pop" businesses that speaks of a wider malaise. Sexism and racism are rife, with one black woman told that "there's no place in management for people like you". Perhaps the biggest metaphor, however, is the statistics on crimes committed in Wal-Mart car parks - rapes, murders and kidnappings - all because the powers that be won't employ staff to watch security cameras or to patrol these vast, car-strewn spaces. Inside the stores, however, surveillance cameras are hard at work protecting revenue and spying out union activity.

The film ends on a high note, with stories of people who have campaigned against Wal-Marts devouring their local communities and won. Yet it fails to address the question of why so many people are happy to shop there, leaving their morals on the shelves in exchange for unbeatably priced toys and shirts. After all, it may be cheap, but it's also nasty.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The worst man in the world?