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What Makes a Factory "Decent"?

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I recently saw a documentary called "A Decent Factory". The film follows a delegation of managers and consultants from the Finnish phone company Nokia as it inspects working conditions at a German-owned factory in China. The revelations unearthed by the team range from the mundane (unappetizing food in the mess hall) to the upsetting (workers clocking 12 hour shifts) to the sinister (female workers are not allowed to move freely beyond their cramped living quarters because, if they were to become pregnant, they might be subject to state-mandated abortion.)

There are several Orwellian moments. One European manager explains that the factory does not provide workers with written terms of employment, as it is required legally to do, because it would never pay the legal minimum wage. Why pretend to be lawful, even a little bit, he seems to ask. In another scene, a British consultant complains about tanks of chemicals stored near a shelf of drinking cups and the entrance to the women's washroom. She is assuaged when the foreman has the tanks removed. What she does not know, and what the subtitles reveal, is that the tanks are sent to the kitchen.

The most haunting moments of the film reveal themselves when the camera lingers for a few moments on active production lines, capturing young women with utterly blank expressions repeating upsurd-seeming tasks. Some unspool strands of wire into large, untangled piles. Others shake black components to check for telltale rattles, which would (I suppose?) alert them to a defect. As it happened, I bought a new Nokia mobile phone a few days before I saw "A Decent Factory." And now I have to wonder: Who were the women who made it? And was it assembled at the start of a 12 hour shift, or at the end of one?


Last updated: Jul 26, 2005




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