Monday, May 25, 2009
Blood, Sweat and Industrialisation
Blood, Sweat and Takeaways is a new series on BBC Three about the industrial complex which produces some of the food we eat (iPlayer; UK-only). The premiss is to take half a dozen British young people and dump them on some poor unsuspecting East Asian factory, to see the conditions in which people work and to appreciate the wages they earn. Some of the scenes are genuinely touching: the most so was when the girls on the team gave the factory worker with whom they were staying enough of their wages to make a surprise visit to her children, who had to stay with their grandparents because both parents were working hard just to be able to live and keep them.However, some of the story is very one-sided. It appears that the team chosen (and one was forced to leave altogether after an altercation more appropriate to Big Brother) was mostly chosen for the complete lack of overseas experience and their horrendously high expectations of life. With the exception of Mr. Strong, only one was said to have ventured beyond the borders of the UK and she had not been further than Europe. Hence, I rather think that the shock at the conditions in which others around the world live and work was in large part due to a wide-eyed naïveté. In fact, one wonders whether some of these people—I think I shall use the word kids, although they are all over eighteen—have ever done any factory or manual work in the UK. It seems like for the most part, they are pampered middle-class kids who have little idea or experience of working-class life in the UK, never mind the rougher side of life found in the developing world.Equally, the programme evinced little appreciation for what money is worth in developing countries. Until the very end, when the girls went shopping for treats, the value of money was not in evidence at all. And even when they went looking for things, they assumed that bread and jam was something of a simple staple, when Western food in Third World countries is a luxury. Chocolate, too, is a luxury and not a standard for Indonesian factory workers: we may wish this to be otherwise, but this cannot change overnight. After all, cocoa is grown in Third World countries as well.Although I shall probably return to discuss some of the other issues raised by subsequent episodes, my final comment on this one would be that, as JonnyN commented on the ASI blog post which alerted me to this programme, it has a disturbing lack of counter-factual. The girls were shocked to learn that the factory job was a good job in the town where they were, and that the ladies who worked there would be glad for their own children to grow up and work in the factory. In truth, it is a good job, and one thinks of young girls in India who work in sweatshops and who, if asked, would tell you that it is either making clothes for Western consumers, or prostitution. The stark fact is that for all the harshness of the life that these workers lead—and I hope that Indonesia is able to have the political and economic stability necessary for growth—in fact, the investors who got the factory built (Western, probably) have done something good for the local community which they appreciate, which is helping them out of grinding poverty, which is better than what they had before, and which is better than any of their other current option.I lied: one last thing. Perhaps I'm a becoming hardened old reactionary before my time, but the best thing about that programme was that even in genuinely hard conditions you could see that spark of the human spirit shine through. That lady I mentioned at the beginning had a dream, to be able to afford a place to live with her husband (working in a mine, elsewhere) and children. She was working hard because she wanted the best for her children. Sure, there were things we would wish were otherwise about the lives of those workers, but to see someone with a dream worth working for makes you realise that if we just give places like Indonesia the chance to develop industrially and trade with us, you'll not keep the people down.