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Who made those jeans, anyway?

The price of becoming an economic superpower

August 2, 2011
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 The largest human mass movement occurs each spring in China when 135 million migrant workers leave their factory jobs in China’s smog-choked industrial cities to journey to their home villages in farmlands hundreds and thousands of miles away to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Millions of these migrants are husbands and wives who left infant children in the care of grandparents in the villages as they sought better paying jobs in China’s booming industrialized economy. “If families cannot reunite for the New Year holiday, what’s the point?” says one migrant in the 2009 film, “Last Train Home,” a documentary by Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan.

“Last Train Home” zeroes in on one family literally swept up in the chaos of trying to make it home in what is almost a human tidal wave of anxious crowds stampeding railroad stations, jamming and squeezing into suffocating passenger cars, and continuing their torturously slow and unpredictable journey by ferry, boat and bus.

 Broken homes

Born in a remote rural village in Sichuan province, Zhang Changhua has been working in Guangzhou factories with his wife for 17 years. He allows the film’s director and crew intimate access to the hard realities of his family’s life. Early in the film, his wife Chen Suqin haltingly, with difficulty, recounts how she left her newly-born daughter behind to accompany her husband and seek work in the city years ago. She has not seen her children in three years.

Their working conditions are not something out of Sinclair Lewis’s “The Jungle.” There is no blood or slop on the shop floor. No dilapidated machinery to mangle hands and arms. No open chemical baths. No PPE. The couple is garment workers, sitting at old sewing machines in cramped, clattering rooms beneath fluorescent lights. What these operators lose over years of long shifts is their eyesight, their hand-eye coordination, all-important hand speed, perhaps their hearing, and most obviously their endurance. “I’m getting old,” says Chen Suqin. “Aging is merciless.” Both she and her husband look old beyond their years.

Dignity is another casualty. Migrant workers like the Zhangs are second-class citizens in China. Despised and ignored by city residents, they take on the sizzling economy’s dirtiest and most difficult jobs for very low pay. China’s household registration system excludes them from public healthcare and social welfare; their kids cannot attend public schools in the cities. They live in cramped dorms and face daily discrimination. Adults try to save for old age and schooling for their kids. Teens and single young adults send almost all their pay back home.

 Déjà vu

“The Last Train Home” brings to mind the period in U.S. history when masses of workers from the South and immigrants from Europe and Asia migrated to factory jobs in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other once-thriving smokestack-belching towns for better pay. It was in those “jungles” a hundred years ago that the seeds of industrial safety practices were sown — and took more than half a century to coalesce around the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Now “China makes, the world takes.” Migrant workers cannot afford the jeans, jackets, running shoes, tennis rackets, and a seemingly endless assembly line of luxury goods exported to the west. But some see the humor in it. One worker in the film holds up a pair of jeans with a 40-inch waist. He grins. “You can fit two people into these jeans. Only America can wear 40-inch waists.” Says another worker, rocking back and forth on his train ride home: “Here is the difference between America and China. In China, if you make 2,000 yuan, you save 1,800. In America, if you make 2,000 dollars, you spend it all, maybe more.”

 Paying the price

Just as in America’s industrial age, families are torn apart, fractured by the move to grab a bit more security and income. The price paid, at least for the workers in the film, is not pain from heavy physical labor as much as mental anguish. Guilt. Recriminations. The Zhangs have a 17-year-old daughter, Qin, the eldest of their two children. Qin only sees her parents once a year during the New Year. Sullen and resentful as a sort of universal teenager, she shouts that her parents care more about making money than they do about her. She cannot forgive them. And like most late teens, she yearns to break away. She quits school and moves to Guangzhou, joining the surge of migrant workers flooding the factories. She begins working 14-hour days cutting and sewing jeans for a $5 wage, living in a 12-person dorm. Qin is typical of rural teenage dropouts in China, where at least one third of the 135 million migrant workers are women aged 17 to 25.

 Sharing the dream

The girl believes making money is more important than going to school in today’s go-go Chinese society, though the new Chinese dream — mirroring the middle-class dreams of U.S. factory workers a century ago — excludes migrant workers who have little chance of escaping their status. When the Zhangs do return home, they hug their young son and before the mother drops her bags she demands, “Where is your report card? What are your grades?” They hammer him to study harder. “You are only fifth in your class?” asks Chen Suqin, the mom. “You should be higher.” “You don’t want to be like us,” says Changua, the dad. “Good grades. School. You will go places we can’t.”

The weary parents attempt to convince their daughter to return to school, but she resists. “You are never here. You didn’t raise me, grandma did. You only care about money.”

 Sharing the burden

But it’s the things money can buy — a stylish airdo, a sequined jacket, cosmetics — that lure 17-year-old Qin to the same lonely, tedious, work-dominated life in some bleak factory town far from home that her parents endure. Weighed down by guilt over her daughter’s anger and facing up to grandma’s declining years, Chen Suqin quits her job and moves back home to try to ensure that her son stays on the straight and narrow.

We talk a lot about work-life balance these days. It’s as slippery to hold on to as quicksilver in the palm of your hand. We talk about job stress, long hours and fatigue. We also lament that the “American Dream” might well be beyond the reach of our kids. The intimate portrait presented in “The Last Train Home” makes the point that halfway around the world, the invisible workers who make our clothes, toys and appliances face trials and tribulations the same as ours. It’s a small world.

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