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Where EAST meets the Northwest

OVERTIME. To avoid getting fined for falling asleep on the job, Jasmine, 17, and Li Ping, 14, use clothespins to keep their eyes open – a common practice in China’s export factories. In the documentary, China Blue, filmmaker Micha X. Peled presents a revealing look into the daily lives of teenage girls who work long (often unpaid) hours in Lifeng Factory, one of a number of denim manufacturers in Shaxi, South China. (Image courtesy of Bullfrog Films)

BIG JEANS. In the documentary China Blue, Jasmine and her friends hold up jeans produced for Western customers. (Image courtesy of Bullfrog Films)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #5 (January 30, 2007), page 1 and 10.

Global business interests conflict with workers’ rights in China

China Blue

Produced and directed by Micha X. Peled

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, 2005

Opening at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre on February 17

By Maileen Hamto

How much is a pair of jeans worth? Depending on where one stands along the supply chain, the answer varies widely.

Through the film China Blue, Israeli filmmaker Micha X. Peled presents a revealing look into the daily lives of teenage girls who work long (often unpaid) hours in Lifeng Factory, one of a number of denim manufacturers in Shaxi, South China. Their struggles expose the hard reality of how global competition and business interests directly conflict with upholding the rights of workers.

Beyond hard lessons in entrepreneurship and economics, the movie excels at exposing the very human motivations of the young women featured in the film. The Chinese are portrayed as being a very focused and hardworking people — from the factory bosses to the workers. Orchid, who has been working at the factory for three years, has the "same goal" as her boyfriend — also a worker in a nearby factory. The couple wants to one day save enough money to start their own business. The film follows the experiences of Jasmine, 17, who left her rural village to seek work in the city. Her primary concern is to be able to contribute to her family’s finances.

Each worker has a role in the assembly line, and each gets a few cents for each pair of jeans. Workers toil round-the-clock — without overtime pay — only to make pennies on each pair of jeans they advance through the line. Mandatory, uncompensated overtime is the least of their problems — the workers have no idea when they will get paid.

As a newbie thread cutter, Jasmine makes about $0.03 for every pair she preps for shipment. It takes her a half-hour to get each pair done — she makes a grand total of $0.06 per hour.

How did it get this bad? The film asserts that China is the world’s manufacturing behemoth because it has the human capital to keep up with increasing demand for cheap labor. The movie attempts to be fair — it does not place the blame squarely and heavily on any one participant in the complex game of capitalism and globalization. Mr. Lam may be the boss at the Lifeng Factory, but he is at the mercy of Western clients who command the price they want to pay for goods.

Labor is cheap. Chinese manufacturers are in competition not only with each other, but with the rest of the world. Lam is seen in tough negotiations with a British importer who threatens to take his business elsewhere because of a late delivery. The importer’s primary motivation is to secure the lowest price for the order. We learn that the per-piece rate for garments varies with each order, and so does compensation for each worker. At $4 per pair, after the cost of goods are deducted from the order, we learn that the factory makes only pennies on each pair of jeans completed.

The filmmakers acknowledge that the harsh realities of global competition are forcing Chinese companies to ignore and violate labor laws. To stay competitive, Chinese manufacturers lie to labor rights inspectors and cheat their workers. Former factory managers assert that workers are told to lie when asked about conditions in the factory. The factory keeps two sets of books detailing employee wages to satisfy inspectors.

While not intended as a lesson in economics, the film hints at the detrimental effects of Western consumers’ appetite for bargains. Western companies demand lower prices from their Chinese suppliers, allowing consumers to enjoy inexpensive goods. From a bird’s eye view, the roles played by consumers, producers, and suppliers are introduced — but not adequately discussed.

Forget the egregious markups. How much does a pair of jeans really cost? It’s clear that costs involved in producing one pair of jeans ought not to be measured in mere currency. As long as workers from poor rural areas in China are putting in countless hours of unpaid labor, it will be hard to pin down the real cost of denim.

China Blue will be shown February 17, 18, 24, and 25 at the Hollywood Theatre, located at 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. in Portland. For more information, including show times, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <www.hollywoodtheatre.org>.