Treating workers as machines? Business can be part of the cure

“By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image – superimposed – and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is –undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored – you would drop in your tracks!”

New advanced training course: Human rights due diligence

This is a passage from an extraordinary book I read as a teenager called The Futurological Congress. I have since been haunted by its image of a world in which people have the impression that they have all the comforts of life: delicious food, comfortable homes, beautiful clothes.  

But the reality – which the hero sees after taking a dose of up’n’at’m, the antidote to mascon – is that they are dressed in rags, eating gruel from troughs and clambering up empty lift shafts.

Last night I saw a film called ‘Machines’ by Rahul Jain. It is the cinematic equivalent of up’n’at’m. It is not the first film to strip away the illusion of the comfortable life many of us lead, to reveal the drudgery, brutality and ugliness of cheap labour production that supplies that life. But it is one of the most powerful I have seen. It absolutely made me drop in my tracks.

The only music is the ceaseless thrumming of the machines (the mechanical ones).

Human “machines” silently tend the mechanical ones – stoking their fiery throats, oiling their antediluvian limbs, feeding endless rivers of pure white or brightly coloured fabric through their roaring rollers, heaving vats of the dark and poisonous dye or the giant bales of intricately patterned voile into which the dye miraculously transforms.

Hearing workers speak

The only voices are when – very occasionally – the workers speak. Several speak with quiet resignation of their 12-hour shifts and their inability to educate their children on their pitiful pay. One (literally looking over his shoulder) about the fear of unionising, another of the futility of attempting to do so.

A young boy – of roughly GCSE age – describes how every day when he arrives at the factory gates his gut tells him to turn around and run away. But he has no choice but to go in to start his 12-hour shift (later, we see another boy his age repeatedly nodding off and almost toppling into the machine he is monotonously tending). He has swallowed the line he’s been fed that by starting young he’ll learn valuable skills. Yet the adults reveal that this is no life to aspire to. It is a life that they have no choice but to accept due to their poverty.

Another worker says that all he knows is his room and the area of the factory where he works solidly from the time he wakes to the time he sleeps – he has never set eyes on the factory owner, has no idea who he is or what he looks like.

The next image is of said factory owner.

He talks about the importance of keeping the workers a little hungry because if they get too comfortable they will tell the company to “f**k off”. He also says that 50% of the workers do not care about their families and if he paid them more they would just spend it on alcohol and tobacco.

One worker denies that this is exploitation because he has chosen – even got into debt – to come from hundreds of miles away to work here. And is grateful for it. “Poverty is harassment,” he explains. And adds, with the universal fatalism of people who are poor the world over, “there is no cure”.

But he is wrong. There is a cure.

Demanding internationally agreed rights

The cure is workers uniting and demanding their internationally agreed rights (even the contractor knows that it is the disunity of the workers – migrants from other impoverished parts of India – that makes them vulnerable).

The cure is the government enforcing its laws on child labour, health and safety, working hours and minimum pay.

The cure is buyers insisting on decent working conditions from their suppliers and supporting their provision.

The cure is more factory owners following the example of those that ETI knows are abiding by the law and respecting their employees’ rights, and fewer following the example of the owner in the film.

The cure is consumers making it known loud and clear that yes, they are always happy to find a bargain, but not at the cost of turning men and women into machines.

Jain (unseen and unheard by us) is confronted by the workers at one point. They accuse him of being just like all the others – like the politicians coming and hearing their tragic story and then going away and doing nothing about it. “Help us get 8-hour shifts instead of 12,” one says. “Tell us what to do for that to happen and we’ll do it – won’t we, brothers?” His co-workers punch the air and shout their assent.

They are also the cure.

Assuming they are not sacked for unionising (there are plenty poorer to take their place), and their fledgeling leader doesn’t mysteriously disappear…

Jain is doing his bit to support them by showing us his film. Now, what can we – as people who know the textile industry and are committed to ethical trade – do to support workers?

The factory featured in the film is not named, and may not supply international markets. But it is the underlying culture, a culture where it is acceptable to turn men and women into machines, that everyone involved in international trade can, and should, challenge.

The best way to do that is to promote and support the cures.

For information on Human Rights Due Diligence, see ETI’s new Framework which serves as a guide for companies to help manage and mitigate labour rights risks and shows how engagement, negotiation and collaboration are the best way to succeed.

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ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.