Undercover footage brings to light our complicity with the disturbing plight of Chinese migrant workers through the gadgets we demand and use everyday
Complicit, co-directed by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, premiered at the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 11th March. It is a documentary about the exploitation of ‘migrant workers’ (the term used to describe Chinese peasants who move to big cities in search of a better living) by local suppliers of international electronic companies. While in his documentary Behemoth (2015), Chinese director Zhao Liang illuminated the plight of migrant workers in the coal mines of Inner Mongolia by means of poetically arranged breath-taking visuals, Complicit is a more straightforwardly reportorial film. It makes its case using observational footage, interviews with workers and activists, excerpts from undercover footage of factories filmed by some of the characters, and both Chinese and international TV news footage.
According to the onscreen statistics, some 260 million migrant workers of which almost 12 million are teenagers, take up low paid jobs in dreadful conditions every year – often in factories producing parts for consumer electronics brands like Apple, Samsung and Nokia. The film follows several workers, most prominently Yi Yeting, an employee for one of the suppliers who was diagnosed with benzene-triggered leukaemia at the age of 24. He has subsequently become a workers’ rights activist and a volunteer for Labor Action China. The film also follows Xiao Ya, an 18-year-old home-sick peasant, narrating her alienation in the big city of Guangzhou. We also get to see into the life of 17-year-old Shang Jiaojiao, who was employed to clean the screens of electronic devices through which she developed n-hexane poisoning as a direct result of the chemicals she handled during her work. She cannot hold back her tears as she tells the audience: “When I was in the hospital, when I couldn’t walk, I didn’t dare to tell my mother. I was hoping that by coming out to work I could relieve some of the burden from my parents. But the truth is, I ended up as their burden.”
This feature evolved from the short film Who pays the price: the human cost of electronics. Sad stories of the migrant workers we follow hit hard as they chat among themselves, cramped in their basic dwellings or, more often, in the hospital rooms. There is a plague of desperate workers’ suicides and the film opens with the funeral of a 26-year-old employee of Foxconn, one of the biggest Apple suppliers in the region. It also becomes clear that going back to their village roots can be difficult, if not impossible.
However, as it stands, Complicit does not establish a convincing link between the exploitation of migrant workers and the complicity of billions of smartphone users across the world, a feat which I feel is achieved more successfully by films like Sue Williams’ Death by Design (2015). The bigger picture of corporate irresponsibility revealed here is well known for anyone interested in the issues of cheap labour and transnational capital. Multinational firms claim ignorance of the toxic solvents being used by workers manufacturing parts for their gadgets thanks to the labyrinthine world of outsourcing and subcontractors. When ‘legitimate’ contractors cannot meet the targets for a brand, such as Apple, and maintain compliance with health and safety regulations, they pass the work on to unlicensed enterprises that face no such restrictions and compete with each other to win these contracts at the lowest price.
In Complicit we meet activists who try to counter “the absence of watching eyes” in an industry notorious for publishing skewed statistics and giving untruthful press statements. These activists organise on the streets and through social media (especially on Weibo, the ‘Chinese Twitter’). Labor Action China has been providing legal assistance and peer support for the victims, and helping workers sue their employers for toxic substance abuses since 2004 when it became legally possible. Some workers resort to the dangerous practice of undercover filming, but given the precarity of their lives many are afraid to come forward at all, or are forced to return to unsafe workplaces. People who get sick at work are stigmatised, with some employers accusing sick workers of being contagious to their colleagues.
Most migrant workers featured in the film use smartphones to call their families, and many Chinese people, including activists, use MacBooks for work. Are they “complicit” in the same way as consumers from more developed countries? Do the latter have more leverage in pressuring big brands to change the status quo? Activist Pauline Overeem, coordinator of GoodElectronics Network, seems to think so as she calls for “a global movement of consumers to change the industry”. But she quickly adds that there is currently no benzene-free alternative in consumer electronics, creating a dilemma for this global movement, and that users can merely express their concern by contacting the brands. As Overeem also notes, it would cost only $1 more per unit to create safe working conditions for their employees, so it is difficult not to see the absurdity of this situation. These companies often post healthy revenues, enough to make sure all the people in the local supply chain work in conditions that do not threaten their health, and for a decent pay.
Heather White, one of the Complicit directors, states that it is the companies that need to change and start pressuring their suppliers. The film further shows the complicity of Chinese authorities with the situation that migrant workers face. While the official party propaganda praises migrant workers, including in a communist-style ‘Migrant Workers Song’ performed at rallies, all activists in the film agree that government statistics about occupational health are unreliable. The authorities often withhold information about the activities of international companies, citing “trade secrets” as the reason for their silence. Perhaps instead of encouraging me to call my local Apple store as an angry consumer, concerned about an overseas workforce, it would be more effective to keep pressuring the Chinese government to enhance their labour laws to protect workers like Yi Yeting and Shang Jiaojiao.
See more reviews from this year’s HRWFF London as they are published.
Photo: London Human Rights Watch Film Festival
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