Thursday 2 February 2012
Devouring Films: Wal*Mart: The High Cost of Low Price
So, I really enjoyed this documentary which I've been meaning to watch for years but never got round to til I got Netflix AND had my wisdom teeth out around the same time. I was well aware that I would be completely horrified by their business practices, but about now, I'm kind of horrified at the way the government acts (or I should say acted- this was made in 2005, so I'm not sure how things are now: Probably worse, but there's always the chance that they're better) towards Wal*Mart. Specifically: local governments subsidise the building of Wal*Marts in their local area, a stunningly unnecessary move that benefits approximately 3 people, and all of them Waltons, heirs of the original owner of Wal*Mart. Why is it unnecessary? Wal*Mart are (or again, possibly were) the largest corporation in the world, earning more than enough money to build their own damn stores; and yet they were being enticed into areas with all this extra money just so local economies could be completely decimated. Not cool, local governments. At all.
So, you'd think with all their money taken away from schools and other public services, Wal*Mart could afford to give a little money to charity, right? Well, the Waltons had, as of 2005, donated less than 1% of their wealth to charity. Bill Gates? Has donated 58%, and he's still an extremely rich man. EXTREMELY. (I love Bill Gates by the way. Just so we're all aware). But, ok, fair enough, maybe they want to keep their money. That's fine (sort of). But with the massive profits Wal*Mart make every year, they could definitely pay their workers enough money to live off, right? Well, not exactly- Wal*Mart employees don't earn enough to pay for the company health insurance, for daycare, or, basically, for anything other than food and utilities, and sometimes not even that. Wal*Mart, in fact, actively encourage employees to go through government schemes so they can get the stuff they need, just so Wal*Mart doesn't have to provide it for them. Just another way they're swindling tax dollars out of the US Government.
That wasn't even the most upsetting part of the documentary, though I kind of wish it was. Most upsetting is split between the small business owner of 40 years who had to shut down because a Wal*Mart moved in up the road, just because his son and granddaughter were crying about how much they loved the business, and also because of how he said that he really got to know and care about all his employees. I mean, does anyone care about their employees anymore, because all of these massive corporations that I think all of us support in one way or another sure as hell don't. Marginally more upsetting though, was listening to the state of the conditions that workers in China and Bangladesh have to go through just to make cheap shit for Western consumers to buy. I get extremely uncomfortable even thinking about it, because of course I buy some of this cheap shit, and I am, in part, responsible for the subjugation of millions, and maybe even more (tens of millions? Billions?) living breathing human beings. Should they really have to work their entire lives, or at least their entire youths away so that we can buy a really really cheap jumper? Of course not, and we all agree with that, only we're still buying that jumper because there's a complete disconnect between a product's origins, and how it is when we see it in a shop. Like I say, it's not something I am physically able to think about a lot, because it just makes me sick and I literally don't know what to do about it, on a wider scale than just me not buying it.
That is, of course, something that's absolutely not exclusive to Wal*Mart, although as the documentary says, as the largest corporation in the world, they have to set the standard for good working practices and everyone else will follow suit. Doesn't sound too hard, but apparently it is, because, hey, it's all about the money! The bottom line is: The cheaper they can get the product, the greater profit they can make on it, and the more money they can put into their own pockets and not pay their workers. They don't care about the consumer, they don't care about their workers, they literally just care about their profits, and, again, they're far from being alone in this. Everyone does it, and until people stand up and say they want things to change, nothing will. It never used to be like this- something I vividly remember from a Michael Moore documentary is his saying how his dad used to work at the General Motors factory in Michigan, and how their aim was for every worker to be able to afford one of their cars (along with having a good standard of living, enough food to eat and all that jazz), and I just thought, well, where have companies like that gone? Why is it all about making as much money as you possibly can without sharing the wealth now, and why do we stand for it? I blame the 80s, personally, but I blame the 80s for everything.
Anyway. Wal*Mart is evil, yes we know. I think this is a really good documentary for someone who really isn't aware of all the shitty thing Wal*Mart do (and I really wasn't aware of all of them, by any means) and just provides so much evidence (SO many interviews) for the cases it makes. It's also, I think, pretty well made- they do a good job of cutting in adverts where Wal*Mart have made outrageous claims (like caring about the environment! HA!) and then providing cases where they clearly haven't followed through on, well, any of these claims. I also like the fact that it ends on a positive note, highlighting cases where people have defeated Wal*Marts being built in their local areas, and, although 7 years later they're still going strong, at least we know they can be defeated, however small each victory may seem. Because don't get me wrong- even though I want to visit Wal*Mart as a kind of tourist destination, I'd be much happier seeing them go out of business, with a whole load of wonderfully ethical and fair businesses taking their place**. I can dream, right?
*I know it's just Walmart now (at least according to Wikipedia) but I like to use the star key, so shh!
**Because, you know, I don't want people to lose their jobs or anything, even if they are shitty shitty jobs- in Laura's imagination world, these new ones are much much better.