Just like all mothers, my Mum tried to protect me from the evils of the world— bad men offering kids candy; cars that would come from nowhere and hit you if you crossed the street without looking both ways; dying from hypothermia from going outside with wet hair; and, worst of all, Wal-Mart. I was never allowed to shop at Wal-Mart, and if a plastic bag from the forbidden store was sighted in the house, there would be questions shot at every member of the family like bullets from a firing squad.
According to the newly released film that was shown on campus by ASP Social Issues, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” my mother had reason to steer me away from the shelves upon shelves of cheap merchandise. Wal-Mart is famous nationally for its glut of cheap commercial goods. How the company achieves such a low price for the customer and yet still manages to propel the owners of the family, the Walton family, to the list of the ten richest people in America has been under tremendous scrutiny for the past several years. “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” has compiled many examples of Wal-Mart’s questionable business practices into quite a shocking documentary.
Wal-Mart’s treatment of their employees is one of the main issues addressed in the film. Approximately 1.3 million people are employees at the US Wal-Mart stores. On average, each employee earns less than $14,000 dollars a year. (To put this into perspective, the poverty line for a family of three was put at $15,260 in 2003, according to Business Week.)
Clearly, Wal-Mart must pay its employees minimum wage, so it keeps down its cost by deliberately understaffing its stores as well as keeping employees from working full-time. Overtime is not an option; in fact, employees are often asked to work off the clock to keep their weekly hours below 40. One previous manager even discussed the common practice of managers going into and manipulating the time sheets of employees to keep their hours down.
One of the largest issues regarding the treatment of employees is regarding health insurance. Wal-Mart is proud to offer health insurance to its employees. The only problem is that most of them cannot afford it: “I had my kids on Wal-Mart insurance,” said employee Diane DeVoy. “I had to stop, because it cost too much.”
To deal with this particular issue, Wal-Mart is good enough to refer their employees to a different way of getting medical aid— the government. Employee Phenix Montgomery’s manager told him to take advantage of government programs such as Medicaid and Welfare, telling him to, “use your taxpayers’ dollars.” Wal-Mart encouraging their employees to go through the degrading process of applying for governmental aid did end up using taxpayers’ dollars… $1,557,000,000 dollars worth.
Wait, but what happened to worker’s unions in all of this? Can’t they do something? According to the film, Wal-Mart is “one of the most aggressively anti-union enterprises in America. Everything that can be done— fair, unfair; legal, illegal— is done to keep the union out.” A part of a training video shown in the film was obviously just brainwashing union bashing.
Employees that try to petition to get unions into the stores are identified quickly, ousted as a dangerous compatriot (“I gotta stay away from this person, because I can get fired for talking to this person” said Montgomery) and put under illegal surveillance. John Lehman, a store manager for 19 years said that Wal-Mart stores “will do anything they can to kill the campaign.”
Wal-Mart’s disregard for people’s rights extends past U.S. soil. Though Wal-Mart boasts of its claim to “Buy American,” Wal-Mart actually has doubled its imports from China in the last five years, and their purchases were nearly 10% of all Chinese exports to the U.S. in 2002.
The factories that Wal-Mart buys from are notoriously despicable. In Bangladesh, working hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, for 13 to 17 cents an hour. In China, workers are allowed to live outside of the factory dorms, but they will still be charged rent despite their absence.
One Chinese worker talked about how they are told “how to lie to inspectors. We are supposed to tell them that we worked only six days, when we really worked seven.” His girlfriend added, “If you lie well, you will be rewarded. If you do not, you will be punished or fired.”
One international inspector, Jim Bill Lynn described his incredible loyalty to Wal-Mart. “If you would have cut me, I would have bled Wal-Mart-blue blood.” When he made an honest report about the horrible conditions at factories he was surprised at the outcome. “I thought that a company like Wal-Mart would take quick action and make working conditions better…I didn’t think that would be retaliation against me for doing my job.” The retaliation he described was getting fired.
CEO Lee Scott said the following in the 2004 Supplier Standards Report to the shareholders: “I am proud of the fact that when violations are identified, either by our trained auditors or authorized third-party service providers, Wal-Mart takes action.” Apparently their actions taken include firing the trained auditors or authorized third-party service providers.
Many other dark facets of Wal-Mart’s operations are revealed in the documentary, including their discrimination against women and minorities. Lehman said that there was constant “talk about how women at Wal-Mart are useless.” One African-American employee asked why, even after many glowing evaluations, she hadn’t been promoted. Her manager replied, “there’s no place for people like you in management.” When she asked if it was, “because I’m a woman, or because I’m black,” he responded “well, two out of two ain’t bad.”
If a measure of a documentary is the response to it, this thing is huge. Wal-Mart has hired “high-powered former presidential advisers and set up a public relations ’war room‘ to deflect and respond to criticism,” according to the New York Times.
Even darling Bill O’Reilly had a few choice comments, saying on his show that “apparently these people believe that Wal-Mart is the devil on many issues.” He then went on to discuss the credibility of the creator of the documentary, Robert Greenwald. “[He is] a propagandist who put out the dishonest ‘Outfoxed’ documentary. He’s a radical progressive that blames America first…I mean, this guy is just to the right of Fidel Castro. This guy is just a ridiculous human being.”
O’Reilly then went on to question Massachusets Senator Ted Kennedy’s support. “What does he want? Is Kennedy a socialist; is that what he wants? A guaranteed wage, a guaranteed lifestyle?”
If you were not able to make the showing of “Walmart: The Cost of Low Price” on campus, and you are interested in getting informed or involved, you can contact AS Social Issues at 650-6804 or you can also go to www.wakeupwalmart.com.