The slavery of the global economy. We already know it exists and better overlook it when as ravenous consumerists we buy goods made in exotic countries at ridiculously cheap prices. These prices would not be so low, if these goods, that we fleetingly crave, were made on the other side of the world.
But this is not the case, they come from China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and other “product havens” of the global market.
MACHINES, the debut documentary of twenty-five year-old Rahul Jain, ‘Special Jury Award for Cinematography’ at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, gives us an unflinching, hard-hitting portrait of this slavery, filming with piercing intensity the daily working life of Indian workers in a textile mill of Surat, a town in the Indian State of Gujarat, called the Manchester of the East.
They are called sweatshops, factories where workers “sweat”, where they are treated unfairly and exploited just as in Dickens’ time. 1,500 workers imprisoned among fiery furnaces, machines clattering at all hours of the day and night spinning assembly lines, huge washing tanks, unhealthy dying tubs, little boys emptying huge washing machines, men carrying heavy fabric bales on their shoulders, worn-out bodies seeking a little respite on piles of fabric, faces hollowed out from fatigue, haggard from resignation.
A child nods off for a few seconds, providing us with better than any other image the chilling and deep inhumanity that flows through the bowels of the global garment industry.
12-16 hour shifts for 3 dollars. Up to 70 hours overtime a week. What else could MACHINES be, if not a political manifesto, a call for indignation, an appeal to take action?
There is no voice over, no sound but the clattering of the machines. And the textile workers coughing. They breath in silica dust for most of their shift. For most of the year the temperatures are unbearably hot.
«Less than 200 rupees for a shift of 12 hours», tells one of the many unnamed workers. He had travelled 1,600 kms to find a job.
«God has given us hands, we have to work.» He doesn’t feel exploited.
There is not much dialogue, only a few speak but it’s as if many were talking.
Most of them are migrants, they have indebted themselves to come here and work in a sweatshop. They have paid to sell their work. To be exploited. They mainly come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, the poorestareas of the Hindi Belt, the region in the central-northern part of India.
Accounting for 5.2% of global exports, India ranks as the world’s second largest textiles exporter after China. 45 million people are directly engaged in the production (2% of GDP), nearly 12 million of these are children. It is forbidden by law to employ children under sixteen years.
«Everybody works 12 hours some do work that requires physical strength. Some use their brain, some work requires the use of hands and feet, some muscles to work the machines.» tells another worker.
Rahul Jain presents us with a “harmonic” series of images. Machine wheels that dye fabrics, that roll out cloth for kilometer after kilometer and then roll them up. Business men choosing fabrics. Speaking in Arabic. «This fabric is good for the summer, it is called voile, it is expensive, 127 dollars.»
«I arrive at 8 in the morning and leave at 8 in the evening, once back home, I cook and eat. Then after an hour’s break, I return for a second shift. Poverty is a plague sir, you can’t do anything, there is no cure. Nobody is exploiting me. I borrowed money to come here. From what I earn I have to eat, save and raise my family – when I think about having to raise my family with this money, I try saving 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 rupees. Tell me who has the strength to work non-stop for 36 hours? Or worse for 48 hours ? How can the rich know about poor people’s troubles? I had to borrow money to come, at 10% interest.»
The stories are all the same.
«The State of Gujarat is feeding the stomach of the poor. There is no food at home, a boy of 10, 15 years of age comes here and earns up to 6,000 rupees a month. Even if he is not able to save anything he is at least able to feed himself. In Utter Pradesh, Bihar, Bengali, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, food can’t be taken for granted. If the workers united they could get better working conditions, they could work for 8 hours instead of 12 […]. Here nobody gets holidays, bonuses or overtime – if you cause any trouble, they throw you out at once [..] Today, the laborers could be tigers but they lack any unity,they are unorganized, feeble as sheep.»
Since the ‘60s, India has been experiencing an unregulated industrialization, the Contract Labor Law (the backbone of Indian labor laws) has been increasingly liberalized in most states. Contractor-hired workers have become more frequent and it is allowed in all India’s textile and garment.
In MACHINES, we meet one of the contractors and it is not a very nice experience. An illiterate and stocky man. His words help to understand why unionization hardly exists in the present textile mills.
«There is a union but the contractors are stronger. The contractor is enough. I, for example,am strong, my laborers don’t go to anyone […],nobody can do anything to me. If they sued me they would spend over a 1,000 rupees and then they have to eat. Can you imagine fighting a case from Uttar Pradesh? That’s why the unions are weak, because there is always a contractor ready to help a worker. If a worker ever needs money, he gives it to him.»
We move on to the boss. His words are simply revolting.
«In the last 12 years the cost of maintaining a home has doubled. What could these illiterate people do otherwise? They would be finished. They spend their money to buy tobacco, alcohol […] Indians can be motivated only in terms of wages, they understand only one thing: money. That was not the case before. Wages now are ten times higher than ten years ago, but at that time the degree of sincerity was good. They had an empty stomach, they were worried about the company. Now their stomachs are full, they are relaxed […]»
You would not think this looking at their faces.
Outside, standing in the drains, children clean out with their hands the vats of fabric refuse. «It is sticky», says one of them. It is a black sludge. «There is plenty for you to pull out.»
The camera shifts outside, to the factory entrance where a number of workers aregathered. Few of them want to speak. «We are farmers but our crops failed because of the drought, nothing is growing. We planted potatoes for 20 rupees a kilo and we sold them for 5. We lost 15 rupees a kilo. From the remaining 5 rupees we have to feed our family […]. Nobody does anything about all of this, ministers come, make their speeches and leave. Can you do something for us? Can you make them reduce the shift to 8 hours?»
“Poverty is harrassment, sir, you cannot do anything, there is no cure.”