Good documentary films help us understand the world by allowing us to see things outside of, but relevant to, our immediate experience. Occasionally, we discover one that expands and alters our worldview.
In this film, the viewer meets the girls at the other end of a supply chain that extends from the sweatshops of China to clothing retail outlets in the U.S. and Europe. The film focuses on Jasmine Lee, a teenager who migrates from the countryside to the city of Shaxi in Guangdong province in search of work to aid her family. She finds employment as a thread cutter in a blue jeans factory where she works seven days a week and lives in a company dormitory room with 12 other teenage girls and young women.
Working and living conditions are abominable. The girls routinely work 18 hours a day without overtime under vigilant supervisors who punish them with pay cuts for not meeting production quotas, falling asleep on the job, leaving the premises without a pass, and even getting sick. The girls pay out-of-pocket for hot water that they have to carry to their rooms, and the cost of the bland meals provided by the company is deducted from their pay. When they have to work all night the girls get a free snack.
The sweatshop economics that dictate the girls’ lives are harsh: for jeans that retail for $60 in the West, the Chinese factory owner receives a dollar, of which Jasmine, at the bottom of the pay scale, receives six cents an hour. Salaries for the girls at the factory range from $30 to $60 a month, and even these paltry wages are frequently withheld by their employer. Most of the girls send money home, but they can seldom afford to visit.
Mr. Lam, the owner of the factory, appears in the film as the antagonist, but a broader view of sweatshop industries implicates a much bigger culprit.
Poor workers, largely women and girls, laboring and living under similar conditions around the world, produce many of the commodities that enter the supply chains and ultimately put food on our plates, shoes on our feet, electronic devices at our fingertips, and furniture in our homes and offices.
As consumers, we are asked to believe that it is our demand for these goods that is ultimately responsible for the problems down the line, but careful examination of the supply chains points the finger at the people who own the means of production and the various middlemen who live off the labor of others.
The tired argument that factories like the one documented in China Blue are aberrations of the system does not ring true. The sweatshop conditions of the garment industry have been a historical constant.
The wretched treatment of clothing workers led to massive strikes in the U.S. in the early 20th century (and the establishment of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union); to widespread organizing activity among women in garment factories on both sides of the southern U.S. border during late 20th century; and to the current militant labor action of the women who toil in Mexico’s garment industry.
In China Blue, we get to witness a mini-uprising by Jasmine and her peers.
It is clear that exporting the problems of exploitation to other countries clearly has not solved the basic contradiction between wages and profits in the garment industry.
Viewing China Blue is not simply looking on an abuse of the system, but confronting the essence of capitalist production. Witnessing the ruthless exploitation of the girls at the other end of the supply chain beseeches us to consider an alternate mode of production that balances the needs of people against the profits for a few.
It is not an immutable law that the producers of the goods we use in our lives have to be slaves to those who have expropriated and monopolized the means of production.
|China Blue, and a free, downloadable study guide by Eli D. Friedman, Department of Sociology, UC Berkley, are available from www.bullfrogfilms.com.|