Comment on mardi Gras: Made in China Director: David Redmon

Shown at the 2006 Wellington Human Rights Film Festival. Comments while on a panel which followed the film.

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade;

While the intended messages of the film are obvious enough, I want to comment on a few more subtle issues.

First, the film draws our attention to the anonymity of the market. It is one of the market’s great strengths – it connects you with the products but you need not know the people – and its great weaknesses, as we saw tonight when the bead users did not know where the beads came from, and the bead makers did not know where the beads went, where it is possible for the consumer or producer to isolate oneself from any human rights or environmental issues elsewhere in the chain. Karl Marx talked about the ‘alienation of labour’ and the rise of ‘commodification’.

This lack of knowledge can lead to misunderstandings. We were told that the Chinese workers earned 10 US cents an hour (although other, higher, figures were provided in the film). But that is their earnings after food and lodgings. Nor does it allow for differences in purchasing power. The Chinese workers are probably really earning about $US2 an hour or $4NZ, still too low, but not as outrageously as it appears.

Second, the father of bead worker Qui Bua says that had she not her bead or other factory job, she would have to go ‘overseas’. If this was nineteenth century England that would be a code for a brothel. Now I dont know how you judge the merits of brothels or bead factories, but an economist would say that work in a bead factory gives her some choice. I thought it interesting too, that in the film’s epilogue some of the bead workers had left for other factories. They had a choice. That’s not as good a choice as we have, but more than if there had been no industrialisation.

Finally, seeing the film sent me back to read again Friedrich Engel’s The Conditions of the Working Class in England, written 150 years ago. I was struck by both the parallels and the differences. Except for his race, Roger the factory owner, could have come out of a Dickens or Galsworthy novel. The English industrialisation put their working class through a terrible experience – so awful that some fled halfway around the world to New Zealand to escape. The Chinese industrialisation is pretty tough too, but not as tough as the English one.

That is to the good, but it is no reason why we should not hasten the Chinese industrialisation, while ensuring is their workers have their human and economic rights enlarged.