Is there more pressure for your subjects Jasmine and Orchid to go
work in the factory because they are both the second children in
No, they all do that. Most families only have a single child because
of the policy in China, but they still all go out to get these jobs.
Very, very few young people stay in the villages.
Is it just because subsistence for them is so difficult?
Yeah, and there are not many work opportunities locally. And if there
are, they pay even less. Also, because everybody else goes. I would
say that most of those people actually want to go, to leave. It's
later on when they're in these factories that they hate it. But when
you are fourteen - that's the age when most of them go because that's
when they finish middle school - you want to do what your friends do.
You don't want to be the only one that stays behind, no matter what
it is. I grew up in a country where there was compulsory military
service. When we were eighteen we all went into the military. It
wouldn't have crossed my mind not to do it because all my friends did
Also, in Chinese culture there is a very strong commitment to be a
good son or daughter. One of the things Jasmine said that didn't make
it into the final film but it was in her journal was, "I hope to be
as good a daughter to my mother as my mother was to grandma." "Filial
piety" is, I guess, what it would be called in English. It's that
sense of obligation: If you're not doing it then you're not a good
This may seem like an ignorant question, but do the parents of
these kids own the farms they're working on, the land they're working?
That gets kind of complicated. China is in a state of transition. It
has been for quite a while, since the 1980s, economically and
politically. If you went over there, you would think, Yeah, they all
have their own place, everybody has their house and their land and
it's all clear, but one of the decisions the Chinese government made
is that while the urban class got to have actual ownership titles,
the peasants don't. Because they don't have title to their land, they
are a lot more vulnerable to all kinds of shenanigans and pressures,
so it happens all the time that officials come and say, we are taking
over this piece of land over here because we are building a highway
you're going to have to move. They will get some compensation, but
they're always being ripped off. Officials are becoming fat cats;
sometimes they just want to build a high rise apartment somewhere
because that area has got that potential. Also, farmers, because they
don't have title, can't go to the bank and borrow money against their
land. So they're in a very tight situation. In the last few years,
there have been all kinds of promises of reforms specifically to help
the farming community.
So do a lot of the people who go to work in these factories end up
working on the land of their parents when their parents have passed
away? Do they return to the villages?
Eventually most of them do [return to the villages] because they're
not allowed to settle in these places where they go to the factories.
They're called migrant workers.
Even though they're just coming from a difference province...
That's right. They have to get a temporary residential permit and
that permit is conditional on having a job, which is another way that
the factory controls them, because if they get fired, they can't
really stay there - or they may stay there, but when the police catch
them, and they do all the time, they can be just hauled off to prison
and shipped back home. They never stay in those places. Maybe their
highest dream, but it's very unrealistic for a girl, would be that
she would meet a local boy and get married to a local and move there.
But that never happens because they really have no contact with the
locals whatsoever. The foremen maybe, or the heads of the departments
would be local people, but they look down upon them - the migrant
workers are kind of like second class citizens.
So really, their real plan is to send money home so that the family
can buy some things that improve not only their life but also their
status in the village. That makes the girl a more attractive marriage
candidate and she also saves some money for herself for a dowry to go
back home and get married. For example, Orchid and her boyfriend, who
got married, after another year of working in the factory, they went
back. They saved enough to buy a used pickup truck and now her
husband does deliveries with the truck and so they control their
lives a little bit more.
How did you contact the underground labor movement in China? You
interview some ex-factory managers and people talking about
It is a very underground situation because these people get sent to
reeducation camps. They're called Reeducation Through Labor
which is a very nasty system in China. There are hundreds of those
camps, and it's nasty because there is no due process. You're not
brought before a judge. In fact, you yourself don't even have the
right to be at the hearing about you; you just get sent. So it is
very much an underground scene. I got connected to it through the
dissident labor movement in the States. They realized that this was
an opportunity for them to get their voice out into the world so they
helped me connect to some people over there.
But it was always complicated. We had to always make phone calls from
Hong Kong, and from payphones. Once we met with people, their phone
number didn't work anymore; a couple that we met then didn't come to
the second meeting. We have one guy who was interviewed in the film
and of course we had to protect his identity - he's silhouetted and
his voice is scrambled. He was the only one to agree to actually go
on the record that way. But if the government got his identity, he
would be in one of those camps tomorrow.
So there's no balance between the rise of entrepreneurship and the
opening of the markets and a decrease in human rights abuses or
escalation of freedoms.
Not really. This is something that's discussed a lot - the theory
that if you allow economic free markets then that will bring
democracy. It is not really working in China because the government
continues to completely control freedom of speech and political
discourse, but at the same time allows complete wild, amok
capitalism. China has signed many international treaties and
covenants that mean they are obligated to allow workers the right to
organize themselves and they just ignore them.
You have spoken about the hope that sweatshop-free clothing might
become something like organic foods or dolphin-safe tuna, a label
that could be associated with products through consumer demand and
pressure. Do you see that happening in China at all, perhaps
retailers from the US going over with that approach?
First of all, I don't want to cast myself as an expert on China. I'm
just a filmmaker. I know what took me over there. That's what I can
talk about with semi-authority. But overall, it seems that the whole
issue of consumer rights is very much a burgeoning, nascent new
concept in China. They do already have some programs on TV about
consumer issues but it only gets to the urban elite. China is very
far from the rule of law in so many more crucial things than this.
But there must be a lot of buying power from countries like the
US, whose consumers believe they define their personal identities and
beliefs through the products they choose to buy.
I've shown this film in 25 countries by now. What I've been struck
with is that everywhere in the world, from Bermuda to Israel to New
Zealand to Lebanon to South Africa, people always ask the same
question: What can I do about it? People immediately feel connected to this problem in the most direct and personal way. I heard about a
woman in Scotland who went home and ripped all of her "made in China"
clothes out of her wardrobe after seeing this film, which is not
exactly the intention of it, but anyway, at some point, if the NGO's
are capable of harnessing all of that concern out there into a
coherent voice demanding some sweatshop-free clothes, I think for
sure there will be some retailers who will provide that because it's
just responding to the market. If you have ten percent of consumers
who are willing to buy something, that's a huge niche.
There is a mistaken notion that it would make the clothes a lot more
expensive. If you see my film, you know that the workers get paid one
dollar to make a pair of jeans, all of them together. Think about it.
If you go here to a tailor and get something made, imagine how much
it would cost, just the labor, I'm not talking about the fabric. With
the fabric, altogether the factory gets four dollars. When we go and
buy something, the cost of making that piece of clothing is less than
ten percent of what we pay. The real cost is what happens after it
leaves the factory; we pay for the ads on TV, we pay the salaries of
the executives of the brand, we pay for the rent of a fancy address
downtown for the store; it's not the cost of making it really that
determines the price. So, let's say that the price paid to the
workers was tripled to make it sweatshop-free. That's only two
dollars more. And if we got an independent organization we could
trust to inspect it, maybe that would add another dollar to the
price, but it's really negligible. So people who are spending $80 on
a pair of jeans and who care about this, if they had to pay $83 for
their pair of jeans to be sweatshop-free, I'm sure they would rush to