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Blue China

(January 22, 2007)
  The movie is so tedious that I watched the seconds tick by for ten minutes in the middle. Badly filmed in the emerging factories of Canton province in China, China Blue paints a picture of Dickensian complexity in the era of 32 inch televisions. China's emerging middle class is enduring a rapid transformation. People who were young peasants down on the farm are entering the cities in droves.

The story centers on Jasmine, a young peasant girl who leaves the family farm, takes a 2 day train ride to a faraway province and gets a job trimming the threads on blue jeans in a denim factory. She experiences all of the hard knocks you'd expect in a story that features the move from agrarian to industrial modes of employment.

Working for Papa is tough. When she leaves home, there is too much work on the farm for the family to escort her to the bus station. She is handed 100 Yuan (the local currency) and kissed goodbye. She arrives in a city bigger than could be imagined in her idyllic peasant life.

The living conditions are intolerable by contemporary American standards. The young women live 12 to a room in a factory dormitory with buckets of hot water for personal sanitation deducted from their pay. Overtime, often mandatory, begins after an obligatory 14 hour day. Wages amount to six cents an hour.

Working in the factory is tough. Grumpy supervisors yell orders and loom behind the workers waiting for a mistake to pounce on. The factory owner complains that workers are not capable of really understanding the right work ethic. While there are two choices, the "Iron Fist" and "relaxed management" and he'd prefer to be relaxed, sometimes he just has to use the Iron Fist. They are so ignorant, you see. Sometimes severity is the only way of communicating with them.

Surprisingly, as the workers took their lunch breaks to munch factory provided gruel, we thought about Google. It seems like the company provided lunch is always about the the same thing. While the quality differs, the idea is to ramp productivity by keeping the workers close at hand.

As the denim company missed paydays (because of cash flow demands of the business, basically), we noticed that the concerns of workers and owners are equally misaligned regardless of the work. Workers expect routine compensation and a steady stream of benefits, recognition and challenges. Owners have to convert the lumps of customer oriented reality to meet those needs. It's the hyper-challenging aspect of running a business.

The editorial point of China Blue is to expose the working conditions at the far reaches of the outsourcing supply chain. It's a fair question. Do we exploit someone or a class of people when we move work to places where labor is cheap? The factory owner gleefully tells prospective customers, "We've got lots of resources, all of them human." Does he make his profit by skillfully taking something that belongs to the workers?

The movie includes clips from a Human Rights Inspector who makes it clear that none of the factories competing for this class of business meets basic human rights conventions or local labor laws. Elsewhere, we discover that customers relentless push prices down (Wal-mart being the hidden devil in this portrayal).

From here, it's less clear that someone is being harmed.

What we saw is the third great trend in global demographics (the first being populations stabilization, the second being the concurrent aging of the globe's population). As of January 1, 2007, the world is 50% urban for the first time in its history. Urbanization happens faster than aging or population leveling. As the population moves into cities, enormous changes happen. Birthrates decline, living standards go up, health gets better.

Go see Blue China. It will give you a moment to reflect on the workforce of tomorrow and what it is experiencing today.

John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.
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