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A Decent Factory (2005) - PopMatters Film Review )

Lester Pimentel

The documentary about cell phone company Nokia assumes its 'revelations' will dovetail with our preconceived notions.

A Decent Factory

Director: #233;s
Display Artist: Thomas Balmés
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Icarus Films
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-06-29 (Limited release)

At the conclusion of A Decent Factory, your first impulse will be to protest on the grounds of false advertising. Where is the incisive exposé, the damning dénouement? The film is supposed to document Western corporations' lack of social responsibility as they avail themselves of cheap labor in the Third World (in this case, China). You thought you were in store for a lively, lacerating critique of globalization. Instead, you've sat through an artless muckraking exercise in which facile and unsurprising observations are delivered as if deep insights.

The structure of this visually dull documentary is relatively straightforward. French director Thomas Balmés tags along with a handheld camera as Hanna Kaskinen and Louise Jamison, business ethics advisors hired by Nokia, review working conditions at a Chinese plant that supplies parts to the Finnish cell phone company. Some investors have inquired about the operations of Nokia's suppliers in developing countries, and so the company wants to preempt a public relations disaster by exhuming any potential skeletons lurking in its closet. By ordering such an audit, the company can inoculate itself against charges of a cover-up, and earn plaudits from the press for its transparency. Ironically, Nokia turns the film into positive PR, since it comes off as a socially concerned company trying to do right in the nebulous world of globalization.

In this world of shady business practices, China occupies a central place. Its factories are notorious for their lack of worker protections and rights, while government officials tasked with regulating workplaces are equally infamous for their venality. Given the country's exploding population, employers are in a position to offer depressed wages for ungodly hours of menial work. Western companies are increasingly outsourcing their operations to poorly regulated factories in places like China in order to reap the profits of vastly reduced labor costs, particularly those associated with healthcare and overtime pay.

Against this well-known backdrop, Kaskinen and Jamison descend on a plant in Shenzhen, China. The factory officials are caught lying about the wages they pay, keep two sets of books to mask their multiple schemes, and even confess to violations of labor laws, which have presumably been forgiven by government inspectors in exchange for kickbacks. Though the Nokia executives affect astonishment and outrage, none of this is surprising. The factory, for all its underhanded practices, is scarcely an example of egregious exploitation. The workers themselves, even after much prodding in private interviews with the auditors, don't recount any horror stories. They complain about boredom and the poor quality of cafeteria food. In an ideal world, these employees would be entitled to all the benefits and protections enjoyed by workers in developed countries. But, alas, the world is a lot more complicated.

At the end of the film, we learn that Kaskinen, frustrated with her inability to get Big Business to do the right thing, has quit her job to work for an NGO, where she believes she can make a "meaningful difference." In the final scene, we see her, while skiing with her daughter, bend down to clean up after her dog. The message? This model citizen is doing her part to keep the environment pristine. Early in A Decent Factory, she expresses excessive embarrassment that her business cards are not made from recyclable paper. This is righteous narcissism, an obsession with one's sense of goodness.

In the end, this film is more about committed activists like Kaskinen than exploited workers in developing countries. We learn little about the lives of the men and women who work in this factory; they serve as window dressing in a showcase for anti-globalization pieties. A Decent Factory makes no attempt at persuasion through force of argument. It assumes its "revelations" will dovetail with our preconceived notions. If you believe globalization is a scourge upon the world's poor, you're likely to have your views vindicated. Everyone else -- including those of us who feel globalization often does more harm than good -- is likely to feel cheated.

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