Blue Monday

Blue Monday how I hate Blue Monday Got to work like a slave all day. --"Blue Monday," 1954

"At Lifeng we're happy to make the jeans for the whole world. We never miss a deadline, even if it means our workers keep working all night."--Jenny, Lifeng Factory, China

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Five minutes into watching the documentary China Blue, I was tempted to turn off the TV, quit this self-imposed project, and get back to my previously simple globalized life. The life where it wasn't any of my business if a product originated in China or Timbuktu as long as the price was right. Where multinational corporations were my friends, pulling into the nearest port with shiploads o' affordable goodies. Where I could run into Costco for a rotisserie chicken and emerge with the hot-basted, paprika-dusted roaster plus a shopping cart filled with China-made loot: Adidas running shoes, Karen Neuburger pajamas, Ralph Lauren khakis, Levi's jeans, a Nikon Coolpix Digital Camera. Thanks multinationals. Bring. It. On.

But watching China Blue clear through to the end--twice--strengthened my resolve and reminded me why I'm seeking, finding, and buying only USA-made products.

The 2005 documentary was directed and produced by San Francisco filmmaker Micha X. Peled. "People don't want to feel guilty when they buy clothing," Peled says, "but once they see the film, shopping may never be the same."

Well, Mr. Peled, your film certainly had its intended effect on this blogger. I now feel guiltier than ever about every single Made in China product I own (see first paragraph). But sometimes guilt can be--nod to my Catholic roots and Martha Stewart--a good thing. It can motivate people like me to change, at least temporarily. Talk to me in a few days, though, when the guilt has faded; when I'm in Costco staring down unbelievably cheap summer PJs. Will I remember this film? I wonder.

If you're curious about the film, read on. But consider your carefree American consumer-self warned:

Filmed in secret over a three year period, China Blue follows 16-year-old Jasmine, as she leaves her family's hardscrabble farm to work in the Lifeng blue-jeans factory. Jasmine has an older sister. "I'm sure my parents were disappointed when I was a girl too," she says, speaking softly. "Now I can help my family." English subtitles run along the bottom of the screen. Jasmine plans to send whatever extra money she earns back home, enabling her parents to send her sister to high school.

Filmmakers deftly move back and forth between Jasmine's new life as a factory girl and simply stated yet astonishing words on the screen: Over 130 million Chinese peasants, mostly young women, have left their villages in search of jobs in the global economy. They comprise the world's largest pool of cheap labor, and are the main producers of clothes and other commodities for Western consumers.

It takes Jasmine two days and two nights on a crowded train to reach the Lifeng Factory in Shaxi, near Canton in South China. Once she enters the factory gates, her new life as a thread cutter begins. She's required to work as many hours as necessary to get an order completed for shipment, often working throughout the night, with no overtime pay, at a base salary of $.06 an hour. She lives in a room in a cement dormitory with 11 other girls and one squat toilet that also serves as a sink. Her meals and rent are deducted from her wages. There's no place to eat. She and the other workers carry their bowls of noodle soup back to their cramped rooms.

Early on we also meet the factory owner Mr. Lam, former police chief of Shaxi. He tries to come across as a benevolent boss who must endure the pressures associated with running a competitive business. But he drives a Mercedes, eats at swanky restaurants and brags about the money he makes. To relax, he does calligraphy. "It is good for our corporate image," he says, "[It] soothes your heart and soul." As the film progresses, Mr. Lam emerges as a tyrant. Heart and soul? Neither seems to exist.

The film follows three stories: Jasmine's, Mr. Lam's, and that of an enormous order for jeans and jean jackets for a British client. Jasmine and hundreds of other workers must complete this order on time or lose their jobs. Mr. Lam has agreed to give the client a lower price--$4.10 per piece instead of the usual $4.20--and has decided to secure his profit margin by pushing the workers harder than ever. His managers post "motivational" signs on the walls: "If you don't work hard today, you'll look hard for work tomorrow."

As the weeks go by, Jasmine writes in her diary. "Writing," she says, "is like eating candy. It's a very happy experience for me. It's both about myself, and not about myself."

She forms a close friendship with an experienced factory girl named Li Ping. Although only 14-years-old, Li Ping answers Jasmine's questions and becomes a surrogate mother to her older friend, calling her "Little Jasmine." Sleep deprived, pushed by unrelenting managers to work harder, Jasmine daydreams that she's a super hero with magical powers. "Her sacrifice will be worth it, because one day she'll go home and help her family."

To wake up workers like Jasmine and Li Ping who fall asleep while working, managers poke them with two-foot-long screwdrivers. Or they clip plastic clothespins to their eyelids. Explaining this on camera, a couple of managers laugh. "They fall asleep with their eyes wide open." More laughter.

Mr. Lam--oblivious that filmmakers have been working inside his factory off and on for years and know the truth--says: "Foreigners have a very poor understanding of China. Their slanted media portrays us as a totalitarian, frightening country…We are now a democratic society. Workers have rights…we all sit down at the same table. We are equals. There are two styles. One rules with an iron fist. I prefer a relaxed style. But you cannot let the workers get out of control. They are uneducated, low caliber. These farmers are 20 years behind. You cannot teach them work ethics. It's beyond them."

A delegation of American inspectors arrive at the factory on a predetermined date. There's lots of back-slapping and reassuring. Referring to the workers, one delegate says: "So, they are happy to be here? They are happy? So, it's good for them?" I winced when the delegate asked that. But surely it's what we all want to hear. So, now I can buy my cheap jeans--or even not-so-cheap jeans--and other China-made goodies and feel okay about how they were made?

The inspectors are like putty in Mr. Lam's hands. And Mr. Lam's managers and workers know what to say. "The boss was afraid we would tell inspectors what it's really like," one unidentified manager explains. "He gave us a memo to teach the workers what to say. They asked if we got any breaks at work, we had to say yes. Actually, we couldn't even freely go to the bathroom. Only twice during a shift. My real pay was 300 yuan ($36) but the paper I had to sign said 800 yuan ($97 ). It was fake!"

When an American delegate sees workers carrying food to the dorms, she says "Oh, they can go back to their place to eat. How convenient." And, after more bowing and scraping, another American says: "We're very impressed by what we see, and we hope it'll lead to a lot more trade between you and ourselves."

Filmmakers also spoke with workers in outlying factories. One said this: "Our factory produces mostly for Levis in the U.S. If you tell inspectors overtime is too hard they won't give you more orders. If the owner doesn't get orders we are out of a job. Clients like Wal-Mart are only here to check on the quality of the product. They don't care about labor conditions."

Toward the end of the film, workers finally get paid. The British order, completed on time, has been shipped. To their horror, workers discover their wages aren't what they expect. They haven't been paid overtime. Their hours don't add up. Some, like Jasmine, find out they're not going to be paid at all. This pops up on the screen: Factories typically hold workers' first pay as a 'deposit' to discourage them from leaving. Since factories rarely give permission to leave, workers often lose their first salary.

As other workers head off for the New Year holiday, Jasmine stays behind. She writes in her diary: Sometimes I wonder where all the jeans I'm making are going. Are they going to boys and girls my age? Do they have any idea who the people are, making their clothes? I want to slip a letter into the jeans…Hi Friend, Hello from China. My name is Jasmine… I left home four months ago. I miss my mom, my dad and my kitty. My friends and I made these jeans for you…I cut the loose threads…they say we are very lucky to be able to work in the factory…I'm just happy I can help my sister through high school. You can reach write me at Dorm Room Number 408, Lifeng Factory, Shaxi, China.

At the film's end, this message appears: "In the time you've watched this video, Jasmine and her coworkers have made 35 pairs of jeans. Together, they earned 95 cents."

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Watching China Blue, I had to wonder: Can't we do factory jobs better here? Can't factory jobs--with good pay and benefits-- provide a starting point?

As I've asked before: what's the true cost of a cheap pair of jeans, of those cheap electronics? Would you be willing to pay slightly more, knowing your jeans and other purchases were made in America, providing badly needed jobs under decent conditions?

Oh, and did you hear? From The Wall Street Journal (May 21, 2011): "A large explosion ripped through a Foxconn high-tech plant in southwestern China Friday night, killing at least two people…The facility, near Chengdu, is a manufacturing location for Apple, Inc…it produces iPad tablets."

PS: According to China Blue co-producers Independent Television Service (ITVS), "During production, the filmmakers were arrested and the tapes confiscated by Chinese police. The film is currently banned in China." This same China holds our country's debt, tightly controls its message, and arrests those who try to bring the truth to light. These are our business partners. Some would say we need to enact humanitarian reforms, to push to help the plight of the Chinese factory workers. I would say that's beyond the scope of what we can do. Let's pack up our manufacturing and get back home. Don't you agree?