Sunday, February 22, 2009

Film Review--China Blue

China Blue
directed by Micha Peled

A fifteen year old girl leaves home and heads off to work in a jeans factory. This film documents the lack of worker’s rights and the occasionally abysmal working conditions at the factory.

Jasmine is just like many young girls who are forced to seek work rather than stay in school. She starts working as a thread cutter and spends sometimes eighteen hours per day prettifying jeans that will be sold all over the world for prices that are often more than one of these girls make in a month.

Granted, the cost of living is exceedingly cheap with a cup of tea going for half a yuan (3 c, US) and apparently college costing 3000 yuan, so the misery reports that continue to circulate aren’t entirely accurate. Still, it’s clear that the workers at this particular factory get no money for overtime, do not have sick or pregnancy leave, work insanely long hours and are fined at every turn for the most insignificant infraction. Their lives are consumed with work and they do the same, dull and repetitive task day in and day out. Seven days per week. Some get off better than others. There is one girl who learned to sew zippers and she gets off way earlier than most of the others do. She can go out and hang out with her boyfriend and go to discos. For the others there are no such opportunities as they often work well past midnight and must suffice on three or four hours per sleep per night.

Jasmine’s story is most likely typical. Girls are preferred because they are considered easy to manipulate and won’t fight back. In the film the workers do threaten to strike as their wage packets are held back for weeks. The owner, who is facing a shipping deadline that he must meet or risk losing valuable clients, relents and finally pays his employees. The girls return and work until three o clock the next day to complete the order.

Clearly very few fashionistas spend even a fleeting thought pondering just where their fancy pair of new jeans originates from. They remain painfully ignorant of the simple fact that a group of young girls have essentially performed slave labor for a wage way below the minimum just so they can fit their bony asses into the latest jeans. And should they care? Does it truly matter where something is made as long as it is made and displayed for hungry consumers who just must have it because it’s for sale? Of course it does but we don’t feel obligated to do anything about it. Everything must be new, immediate, and available. To a Chinese girl, there is a different focus. Jasmine is crestfallen because she cannot afford to go see her parents at New Years. A bus ticket home costs a month’s pay and she’s new so she’s stuck.

Wages are most likely insufficient in terms of actual spending money. One girl has enough to pay her debts, pay for room, board and food and has a little left over to send to her parents. That’s it. Working day and night nonstop with no breaks and no chance to do anything fun just so Europeans and Americans can wear designer labels does seem a trifle unbalanced. Fashion seems to require suffering although only a few zealots even seem to be pointing out the nature of the dilemma. Most of us are just dazzled by the feel of new jeans and the lowly existences of poor Chinese girls are bereft of meaning. That’s just the nature of things.

There are whistle blowers who are supposed to determine if certain factories are mistreating their workers but the film points out that they never seem to find anything. The film then goes on to state that this is because the owners and managers of the factories train the girls how to lie to make it seem that they are truly happy doing what they do. But who could be happy in such conditions? What kind of pleasure or opportunity for growth can there be in such a situation? Apparently not much although Jasmine has created a super heroine character who flies away from the absolute boredom that afflicts her life. It most likely keeps her sane in an utterly insane situation.

Overall, this film shows that all of China’s pretenses toward democracy are not improving the lives of its factory workers. It’s clear that these girls are being exploited because there is nobody who will stand up for them if their conditions become intolerable. They can risk a strike but ultimately it would just cost them their jobs. There is absolutely no protection because unions are outlawed and there is no recourse for grievances. They did manage to get their wage packets weeks late but only because they refused to work. If there wasn’t the tremendous pressure on the factory staff to meet the deadline, perhaps they might not have been so lucky.

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