Videos with a Global Conscience

From East Timor to sweatshops, global issues have assumed pressing importance. These videos can bring the issues home to U.S. classrooms

By Bill Bigelow

In the spring of 2000, Rethinking Schools will publish a new book tentatively titled Rethinking Globalization. The book will be a K-12 resource for teaching about the interconnected problems that can be gathered under the heading of “globalization”: sweatshops, child labor, the debt crisis, environmental degradation, the effects of “free trade,” increasing in quality and poverty. The book will also highlight signs of hope, efforts to work and teach for social justice.

The selections below are drawn from a longer compilation of video resources on teaching about global issues that will appear in the book; the headings correspond to several of the chapters. Others, not included in this listing, include: “Globalization on the homefront,” “Consumption as a way of life,” “Culture, power and the environment,” and “Teaching and organizing for justice.”


* Banking on Life and Debt. 1995. Robert Richter, producer. (30 min.) “It’s easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a banker to feel sorry for a child who is starving, dying of starvation,” claims the Brazilian radical politician, “Lula,” in Banking on Life and Debt. The video is an overview of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies that promote poverty, starvation, and ecological ruin. Measured by its ability to engage most high school students, Banking on Life and Debt is spread too thin, covers too much history and too much political economy, and is narrated by too many talking heads. Nonetheless, through examining World Bank and IMF policies in Ghana, Brazil, and the Philippines, the video offers a convincing portrait of an international economic order that drains resources from poor countries in the name of development. And if used with other readings and activities that explore the global debt crisis, this can be an important resource.

The snapshot of Brazil helps clarify the relationship between debt crisis and environmental crisis. Brazil has been ordered to turn more of its land to production for export. Increasing amounts of land are planted in soybeans. As Brazil’s Cardinal Arns points out, “The food that we were supposed to eat [is] being sent to cows and pigs in other countries.” Other poor countries receive the same IMF prescription, and flooded commodity markets pull down prices of Third World raw materials. Meanwhile, Brazilian poor farmers lose their land to huge corporations and become squatters, every year hacking down more and more Amazonian rainforest.

The video doesn’t bubble-over with hope, but we do meet activists in every country visited who describe efforts to organize for alternatives to debt slavery. (Maryknoll)

The Debt Crisis: An Un-Natural Disaster. 1990. Social Action Centre, Jamaica. (Includes a short teaching guide.) (28 min.) Using delightful skits, songs, and expert testimony, this video is a primer on the history and social consequences of the Third World debt crisis and structural adjustment programs, especially focusing on the Caribbean. It has something of a home-made feel to it and lacks the polish that students are used to, but it is a clear and hard-hitting overview of the severe difficulties the debt crisis creates in poor countries. One of the video’s strengths is that it is entirely narrated, and the skits acted, by Caribbean people themselves. The Debt Crisis covers much the same ground as Banking on Life and Debt, although its Caribbean focus is narrower. However, the playfulness (some might argue, silliness) of its skits and its concentration on a smaller geographic area probably make this more accessible for many students. (Friendship Press)

*Where Are the Beans? 1994. Mennonite Central Committee, producer. (13 min.) Where Are the Beans? is a kind of detective story – and an excellent classroom resource. Linda Shelly, of the Mennonite Central Committee, lived in La Esperanza, Honduras for several years. While there, she loved to eat red beans, a staple of the Honduran diet. But when she returned in 1993, she found that no one ate beans any longer. Where are the beans? is the question that Shelly pursues as she visits old friends to learn about how their lives have changed.

Shelly discovers the answer in the structural adjustment policies that the International Monetary Fund pressed the Honduran government to adopt: fewer subsidies to the poor, currency devaluation, no more government loans to small farmers, and increased exports of … you guessed it: red beans. “The small Honduran farmers have been pulled into the global economy – pulled in at the bottom,” says Shelly. “Their new position in this system demands more and more from them and offers them less and less.” The video closes with Shelly’s thoughts on how people in this country can respond to the increased inequities between rich and poor countries, although she overstates the extent to which all Americans benefit from this system.

Where Are the Beans? makes a nice complement to Sweating for a T-Shirt (reviewed below) because it helps explain the forces pushing people off the land and into sweatshops. A useful 19-page study guide supplements the video. (Mennonite Central Committee)

Taxi to Timbuktu. Christopher Walker. 1994. (50 min.) Taxi to Timbuktu was produced by Christopher Walker, who also made the excellent Trinkets and Beads. This is a somewhat slow-moving film about a Malian man, Alpha, who emigrates from Africa to New York, Paris, and Tokyo. It offers an intimate portrait of his life at home and abroad, and the communities he is a part of. Unlike many films professing sympathy for the wretched of the earth, Taxi to Timbuktu offers a glimpse at African poverty that emphasizes people’s enormous resourcefulness and creativity. Although some students may find the video hard to follow or even tedious, its slow pace is also its strength, as the complexity of people’s lives comes into focus.

There is no narration to the film, so little context is offered to explain the roots of poverty in Mali, but in his commentary, Alpha suggests some of the colonial roots to the desertification of his country. The video would be a valuable follow-up to Magnificent African Cake, an episode in the Basil Davidson-narrated video series on Africa, about the consequences of European colonialism. (First Run/Icarus)

*Arms for the Poor. Maryknoll. 1998. (25 min.) Arms for the Poor almost suffocates students with statistics, but it offers a convincing portrait of the U.S. government in cahoots with arms exporters spreading destruction and wasting the precious resources of poor countries: since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has doubled its arms sales; the U.S. sells more weaponry abroad than all other 52 arms exporters combined; 80% of U.S. arms sales go to repressive, non-democratic governments; landmines kill or injure 500 people per week – 95% of landmines are U.S. made. Activists and experts interviewed consistently link U.S. arms sales to the maintenance of global inequality; although this is asserted more than demonstrated in the video.

Well, at least “we” benefit from this arrangement, right? Not according to a Boston Globe investigation, described in the video, that found that over a four-year period, six of the largest U.S. arms exporters laid off 178,000 workers but at the same time tripled executives’ salaries. This was a point that stuck with my predominantly white, working-class students, some of whom occasionally express a tolerance for global inequities because this arrangement benefits “us.”

As with other Maryknoll videos like The Business of Hunger and Banking on Life and Debt, Arms for the Poor hops around the globe, featuring example after example, offering one eloquent testimony after another. It’s a technique that is information-rich and effectively presents broad global patterns, but it also holds students at a distance from the victims of U.S. economic and military policies; we never linger in a place long enough to really get to know anyone. Nonetheless, it’s an important resource, one that generated a good discussion when I used it with my classes. (Maryknoll)


*Sweating for a T-Shirt. 1999. Medea Benjamin, producer. (24 min.) Narrated by first-year college student, Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, Sweating for a T-Shirt may be the best video introduction to the issue of global sweatshops. It opens with Benjamin-Gomez buying her sister a UCLA t-shirt made in Honduras, and then wandering the campus asking students where their clothes were made. It’s an engaging lead-in to her visit to Honduras with her mother, Medea Benjamin, a long-time social justice activist and co-founder of Global Exchange.

In Honduras, the video contrasts comments by industry PR representatives with interviews of sweatshop workers and union organizers, and visits to workers’ homes. No problems here, say the industry folks. “I hate that word, ‘sweatshops,'” complains an Apparel Manufacturers spokesman.

But the video demonstrates convincingly that there are problems here, and that the word “sweatshop” is well-deserved when applied to Honduran maquiladoras, producing for global giants like Fruit of the Loom, Dockers, and Nike: workers make around $3 a day, but the cost of living is $8 per day; hours are long; air in the factories is poor, and health problems like severe bronchitis and skin allergies are common; companies allow no talking and bathroom breaks are few; workers are fired for illness but especially for organizing unions; pregnant workers are fired and denied maternity benefits; youngsters regularly begin factory work around the age of 12 and are unable to pursue further schooling.

The Honduras-U.S. Chamber of Commerce representative tells Benjamin, “I don’t think they even have the need to have a union, because they are considered to be privileged workers. They work in a very nice environment.”

Significantly, the video doesn’t encourage us to pity workers as powerless victims. It emphasizes people’s own efforts to organize to fight for better conditions. As the narration and Hondurans themselves stress, they need our solidarity, not charity.

At the beginning of Benjamin’s time in Honduras, the Apparel Manufacturers spokesman promises to get them in to see first-hand the excellent working conditions. He smiles and tells them, “I’ll arrange that you leave impressed.” But in the end, despite repeated telephone calls, the factories refuse to allow Benjamin and her daughter in the door. As Benjamin says, putting down the phone for the last time, “Well, I guess they’ve got something to hide.” (Global Exchange)

*Zoned for Slavery: The Child Behind the Label. 1995. National Labor Committee. (20 min.) U.S. corporations operating in Central American free-trade zones “pay no corporate taxes, no income taxes, no social security or health benefits, and they treat their workers like slaves. There are no inspections, no regulations, and when workers try to organize, they are fired.” As Zoned for Slavery emphasizes, these miserable conditions are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, with over $1 billion funneled to free-trade zones by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Most of the workers are young women – teenagers – who work for wages that are 5 to 10% of the wages earned by U.S. apparel workers. Children are the losers, forced to choose between work and school, as employers insist on mandatory overtime. In his commentary in the video, the National Labor Committee’s Charles Kernaghan insists that with their forced overtime policies, companies “are telling these young women: ‘It’s school or it’s work – you decide. If you’re going to go to school tonight, don’t bother coming back tomorrow, ’cause you’re fired.'”

Kernaghan’s indignation at the youngsters’ exploitation courses through the video. A Gap shirt made in El Salvador sells in the U.S. for $20, but the workers receive just 12 cents. Who gets the other $19.88? he demands. The video is relentlessly polemical, but why shouldn’t it be? Kernaghan’s outrage is an appropriate response to the degradation he witnesses.

With Kernaghan, we sneak into a Honduran maquiladora and hear from the teenage workers about their conditions. In open garbage pits outside the factories we see discarded packets of the birth-control pills that factory managers force on young women workers. Not explained, unfortunately, is the role of the Korean subcontractors who appear as the video’s only on-camera bad guys.

As with the NLC video, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, Zoned for Slavery is marred by its failure to highlight ongoing organizing efforts of Central Americans themselves. By almost entirely ignoring labor and human rights activities there, the producers implicitly suggest that people in the U.S. must shoulder sole responsibility to confront sweatshop abuse. Still, Zoned for Slavery is an excellent introduction to issues of child labor and global sweatshops. (National Labor Committee)

Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation…1996. Crowing Rooster Arts/National Labor Committee. (approx. 25 min.) This is an angry video that returns again and again to the miserable wages and living conditions of Disney’s Haitian workers. We travel to Haiti with Charles Kernaghan, the intense and indefatigable director of the National Labor Committee, as he interviews Haitians about their work lives and standards of living. The video is especially effective when Kernaghan holds up a Disney t-shirt and reveals to workers how much it sells for in the United States. Their collective gasps and shouts of disbelief offer indisputable testimony about Disney’s exploitative practices.

Now that sweatshops have been in the news for a while, many of my students have heard from parents or teachers that yes, wages are low in Third World countries, but living expenses are so low that it all equals out. To test such claims, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, shows viewers exactly what a worker can buy for her family’s dinner with 20 gourdes – $1.20 – if she were so lucky as to end her day with that much leftover: a bit of spaghetti, an onion, a small amount of oil and tomato sauce, garlic, a bouillon cube and two small pieces of salt fish. The harsh details of Disney workers’ lives, such as these, make this an effective video to use with students. What it lacks in the polish of a network newsmagazine segment, it more than makes up for with its sense of justice.

One drawback of the video, and it’s an important one, is its failure to portray Haitians – and by extension, people in poor countries in general – as agents of change. We never get any sense that Haitians themselves are resisting Disney’s “science of exploitation.” In an interview, one worker says, “We are like the living dead. The boss has benefits and we have nothing. The boss can say anything to us and we can say nothing. “Surely there is truth to this, but the video’s underlying message is that we in the U.S. need to act for Haitians, because they cannot act for themselves. It’s a plea for charity rather than for solidarity.

“Free Trade in Mexico” segment from TV Nation, Vol. One. 1994 (10 min.). Michael Moore, producer. Michael Moore spoofs the era of free trade in this amusing segment of his now-defunct NBC show, TV Nation. He travels to Reynoso, Mexico to pretend to explore the economic benefits of relocating TV production there. In Reynoso, he visits a Whirlpool factory that produces washing-machine parts formerly made in Indiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The workers there make seventy-five cents an hour, and don’t have Whirlpool machines of their own, because, as the manager tells Moore, “One of the problems is that a lot of the folks don’t have plumbed in water.” Moore’s Reynoso tour guide shows off life across the border in McAllen, TX, – home to mansions and 20 golf courses – where U.S. managers of Mexican factories can enjoy the quality of life they are accustomed to. The episode is a light-hearted vehicle for Moore to drive home his point that in practice, free trade means freedom for corporations to export jobs to low-wage havens with lax enforcement of environmental protections. (Columbia TriStar Home Video – available in some video rental stores.)


When Children Do the Work. 1996. Produced by California Working Group. (Approx. 30 min.) When Children Do the Work borrows key segments from the National Labor Committee’s video, Zoned for Slavery and an episode of the PBS series “Rights and Wrongs” to alert viewers to the use of child labor around the world. The narration opens with the claim that as a society “we” did away with child labor at the turn of the century, suggesting that child labor is a problem only in other countries, and closes glibly with a list of U.S. firms that have pledged not to use child labor – neglecting to mention that, to date, none of them has promised to pay a living wage to its workers. Nonetheless, the segments are short, hard-hitting, and offer a dramatic introduction to the global workplace exploitation of children.

The “Rights and Wrongs” segment features an interview with a Pakistani carpet factory manager who matter-of-factly reports that he has 40 looms worked by 100 children. “We chain them three or four hours a day to teach it not to run away,” and adds that the children also sleep chained to their looms. But scenes of abuse are also paired within stances of resistance, and the video highlights the story of Iqbal Masih, a former child worker, who became an activist with the Bonded Labor Liberation Front.

Despite its overly rosy assessment of the progress made in eliminating child labor, the video’s broader message is clear: There are serious problems in the world, and we can work to make things better. (California Working Group)

Tomorrow We’ll Finish. 1994. UNICEF. (26 min.) Tomorrow We’ll Finish dramatizes the lives of three Nepalese girls in a rug factory in Katmandu. Although it may feel a bit melodramatic or contrived to older students, the video is an effective introduction to child labor in the rug industry. Its attention to details – the rigors of the girls’ working conditions, their sexual harassment by their “middleman” overseer, the pressure to produce in order to pay back loans to their families – lends the video a feeling of authenticity and invites students to look at life from the girls’ points of view. Especially touching is the tenderness in the three girls’ relationships and how they look out for one another. I’ve used the video only once, but my students – mostly high school sophomores at the time – enjoyed it and found it more affecting than reporter-narrated TV news magazine segments.

Viewers get only a glimpse of how the girls’ labor relates to the global economy when a European-looking rug buyer enters the factory to bargain for the finished product. The failure to examine the broader context of child labor could be considered a weakness of the video. On the other hand, it demonstrates how in the global economy both consumers and producers are often invisible to each other. (Maryknoll)

If you have ideas for classroom-friendly “videos with a global conscience,” send them to BillBigelow at


All videos marked with an asterisk (*) are available from the Network of Educators on the Americas’ “Teaching for Change” catalog: PO Box 73038, Washington, DC 20056; 202-238-2379;

California Working Group: 510-268-9675.

First Run/Icarus: 212-727-1711;

Friendship Press Distribution: PO Box 37844, Cincinnati, OH 45222-0844.

Global Exchange: 800-497-1994;

Maryknoll World Productions:

Mennonite Central Committee:

National Labor Committee: